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Nuclear Energy Moves Ahead in India, China, the UK and the Middle East, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

The first man-made nuclear fission was achieved in 1938, unlocking atomic power both for destructive and creative purposes.  In 1951, usable electricity was created via a nuclear reactor for the first time, thanks largely to research conducted at the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic weapons during World War II.
By the 1970s, nuclear energy was in widespread use in the U.S. and abroad as a fuel to heat steam that turns electric generation turbines.  As of 2021, nuclear power provided about 19% of the electricity generated in the U.S., created by 92 nuclear reactors, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (  The number has been steadily decreasing in recent years.
Worldwide, there were only about 435 nuclear electric plants operating in 33 nations as of the end of 2023.  (The best source for this data is World Nuclear Industry Status Report.)  This is down from a high of 450 reactors in 2018.  Approximately 59 new plants were under some stage of construction around the world as of the end of 2023, including more than 20 in China.  In fact, China is planning to build as many as 150 reactors between 2022 and 2037, investing up to $440 billion. 
The potential for accidents, meltdowns and other disasters has never been far from the minds of many consumers (after all, for many of us, the first image that comes to mind upon hearing the word “nuclear” is a nuclear bomb).  The 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in the U.S. led to the cancellation of scores of nuclear projects across the nation.  This trend was later reinforced by the disaster at Chernobyl in what was then the Soviet Union.
A group of 20 nations meeting in Dubai in late 2023 at a UN climate-control conference set a goal of tripling the current level of nuclear power production over the next 30 years.  Nonetheless, a difficult regulatory gauntlet, environmental backlash and exceptionally high costs for new plants (including a history of immense cost overruns), combined with today’s abundance of low-cost natural gas from shale, created an environment in which there was little to no enthusiasm for the construction of new nuclear plants in the U.S.  A few American nuclear reactors have been closed in recent years, and many more nuclear plant owners have announced their intention to close existing sites.  About 36 of the reactors in operation in the U.S face closings between 2029 and 2035 when their licenses expire.  Some will likely seek license extensions.  According to the EIA, as of the end of 2019, there were 23 shut-down reactors in the U.S. that were undergoing various stages of decommissioning.
In recent years, the American mindset for nuclear power has been changing.  The Infrastructure Act passed by Congress in 2021 calls for $3.2 billion for the development of advanced nuclear power plants.  New technology developed by TerraPower (an energy company founded by Bill Gates, calls for reactors that are simpler to build, operate at lower pressure and utilize uranium more efficiently (therefore reducing waste).  The technology was still under development as of late 2022 and will require large number of highly skilled engineers and technicians as well as the production of a new high-assay low-enriched uranium.  The first TerraPower reactor will be installed at a Wyoming coal-fired power plant that was scheduled to close in 2025.

A unique technology firm based in Bellevue, Washington has proposed a concept it calls TerraPower,, a dramatically different type of nuclear power.  This technology would use a new class of reactor called TWR or traveling-wave reactor that would solve the current nuclear waste problem.  TWRs would use today’s stockpiles of depleted uranium from power plants as its primary fuel source.  The TWR would essentially be a reactor-reprocessor.  
Traditional reactors rely on uranium-235, and their operation leaves a more common uranium-238 as waste.  Every year or two, traditional reactors must be opened and refueled, and the “spent” uranium-238 waste is stockpiled.  Millions of pounds of it are now in storage.  
A TWR could be fed that uranium-238, which it would convert into a desirable fuel, plutonium-239.  Similar conversion of U-238 has already been proven, but present technologies for reprocessing into plutonium are expensive and complicated.  TWR could represent a significant step forward while reducing the potential of diverting plutonium to use in atomic weapons.
The EIA’s U.S. Nuclear Industry At-a-Glance

     Two new U.S. reactors recently opened, the Vogtle 3 and 4 in Waynesboro, Georgia.  The Vogtle reactors are built to advanced designs that promise to be one-tenth as likely to suffer an accident and be easier to operate and maintain.  The reactors, the first new nuclear plants built in the U.S. in 30 years, are 45.7% owned by Southern Co. and began with a budget of approximately $14 billion.  As of October 2022, the budget had ballooned to $30 billion, and the project was more than six years behind schedule.
Elsewhere, the Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station in South Carolina abandoned two new, state-of-the-art Westinghouse AP1000 plants (which were scheduled for completion in 2019 and 2020) after Westinghouse Electric Co. filed for bankruptcy in 2017.  Westinghouse Electric was acquired by Brookfield Business Partners in August 2018 for approximately $4.6 billion.
Nuclear power plants in many other parts of the world are in jeopardy as high investment costs are difficult to finance and popular opinion turned against the technology in the wake of reactor disaster Fukushima, despite the fact that nuclear power can dramatically reduce a nation’s carbon emissions.  In 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced plans to shut down all 17 of its nuclear reactors by 2022.  As recently as 2010, these nuclear plants generated 23% of Germany’s electricity.  The government hoped to have renewable sources make up the difference.  German electricity prices rose dramatically as its reliance on renewables increased.  By mid-2022 under new Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Germany planned to postpone the closure of its last three reactors due to energy shortages related to the war in Ukraine.
Switzerland also announced plans to phase out existing reactors as they reach the end of their usability.  In addition, Italy cancelled all plans to revive its nuclear program in June 2011 after a landslide vote against nuclear development.  This may change over the mid-term due to the war in Ukraine.
The nation of France was an early adopter of nuclear power.  The French approved a single, very cost-effective nuclear plant design and built it over and over again around the nation.  France currently gets more than 70% of its electricity from nuclear sources.  France is training thousands of workers in nuclear engineering and construction to tackle the building of up to 14 new reactors and possibly additional mini reactors.
Many nations are moving ahead with new nuclear reactors.  In October 2013, a preliminary agreement was reached by the UK to allow French firms EDF and AREVA, in partnership with China National Nuclear Corporation, to build a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in southwest England.  This French Chinese consortium is using EPR (European Pressurized Reactor) technology.  In 2016, construction was underway on two reactor units at Hinkley Point C using EPR technology at an estimated cost of $22.5 billion.  After a number of delays (including the need for additional foundation reinforcement), the project’s price tag has risen to as much as $33 billion and the startup date pushed back to September 2028.  It is hoped that the plant will provide for about 7% of the UK’s electricity needs.
A similar French Chinese partnership is responsible for the development of two EPR plants in Taishan, Guandong Province, China.  In June 2018, Unit 1 at Taishan became the world’s first EPR to be connected to a power grid, and full-time commercial generation commenced in late 2019.  EPR requires about 17% less fuel than earlier technologies.  Four safety systems operate alongside each other, each one 100% capable of ensuring the two essential safety functions required to protect people and the environment in shutting down the nuclear reactor and cooling the reactor core.  Equipment known as the core catcher has been designed to recover, contain and cool the reactor core in the event of an accident.
The UK further strengthened ties to China with an agreement in October 2015 to allow Chinese companies to be minority investors and suppliers to EDF.  The agreement also opened the door for China to play a greater role in future nuclear projects such as Hinkley Point C.
As of late 2023, China had 55 nuclear reactors in operation and dozens under construction.  Rising costs are an issue.  Newer, safer plants such as the U.S.-designed AP1000 and the French-German designed EPR can cost as much as $7.6 billion in China for a two-reactor configuration.  Still, energy consumption per person in China is expected to soar through 2030. 
Japan’s nuclear industry got a boost in late 2016 when the government okayed a plan to sell Japanese nuclear technology to India, which is planning to build 20 new, advanced technology reactors over the next several years (while as many as 55 have been proposed).  Japan has a 2030 emissions goal based on restarting 30 reactors.
In 2023, Finland opened the Olkiluoto 3 reactor, which, at 1.6 gigawatts, is Europe largest nuclear reactor to date.  The country is moving toward a near-total reliance on nuclear, wind and hydro power, which will make it carbon neutral and no longer vulnerable to fossil fuel supply challenges (such as the war in Ukraine).
The history of nuclear reactor construction is littered with cost overruns, delays and complications.  A focus on standardized, advanced-technology designs that can be built over and over again was hoped to streamline the regulatory process, reduce financial risks and encourage investment.  However, this has proven to be an elusive goal, and costs are so high that new construction is unlikely anywhere in the world without substantial government guarantees and assistance.  The U.S. government offers incentives, primarily in the form of loan guarantees, for the construction of reactors.  However, the process and cost of actually getting those guarantees, along with environmental approval and regulatory approval, can be so daunting as to make it next to impossible to build a plant.
Nuclear Waste and Uranium Reprocessing:  The controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project in Nevada was intended to create a permanent location for America’s nuclear waste.  It was designed to store waste 1,000 feet underground above another 1,000 feet of solid rock.  Supporters maintained that one central depository is far safer than the current method of storing waste underwater near each reactor site.  Waste would be transported to a central repository by truck and rail, and it would be sealed in armored casks designed to withstand puncturing and exposure to fire or water.  As of late 2020, the Yucca Mountain project was still in operation, but continued be a bone of contention among state and federal leaders as to its future.
Meanwhile, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico began accepting shipments in 1999.  It stores nuclear waste in rooms mined out of a salt formation 2,150 feet below ground.  WIPP continues operations, winning recognition by the DOE for improvements in energy, water and fleet efficiency while reducing pollution and waste.  However, this site is primarily for the disposal of nuclear waste from research, medical and military uses.
Another underground disposal project is in Finland at the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant.  The proposed site will store spent fuel rods in iron canisters sealed in copper shells to resist corrosion.  The canisters will be placed in holes surrounded by clay far below ground. 
The alternative to the storage of nuclear waste is reprocessing, in which spent fuel is dissolved in nitric acid.  The resulting substance is then separated into uranium, plutonium and unusable waste.  The positive side of reprocessing is the recycling of uranium for further nuclear power generation.  Surplus plutonium can be mixed with uranium to fabricate MOX (mixed oxide fuel) for use in a commercial nuclear power plant.  MOX fuel contains 5% plutonium.  Commercial MOX-fueled light water reactors are used in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium.  In the U.S., MOX fuel was fabricated and used in several commercial reactors in the 1970s as part of a development program.  The negative side of reprocessing is that the resulting plutonium may be used for nuclear weapons and the financial costs are prohibitively high.  Additionally, environmentalists are extremely concerned about the potentially high levels of radioactivity produced during reprocessing, as well as the transportation of reprocessed waste.
Safer Nuclear Power Technologies: New technologies may eventually enable construction of nuclear generating plants that are less expensive to build and much safer to operate than those of previous generations.  Pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR) technology is potentially a highly safe nuclear power plant design, but it is a long shot for commercialization.  Scientists in Germany operated a 15-megawatt prototype PBMR from 1967 to 1988.  Pebble-bed technology utilizes tiny silicon carbide-coated uranium oxide granules sealed in “pebbles” about the size of oranges, made of graphite.  Helium is used as the coolant and energy transfer medium.  This containment of the radioactive material in small quantities has the potential to achieve an unprecedented level of safety.  
The world’s current noteworthy pebble bed project is being carried out in China.  In September 2021, the Chinese HTR-PM pebble bed reactor went critical for the first time.  It is a demonstration reactor that operates at relatively modest temperatures similar to those of coal-fired plants.  However, China is still a long way from having a commercially viable project of high electricity output.
Other nuclear technologies will be used elsewhere in China.  Westinghouse, a major maker of nuclear power plants built in China, using its AP1000 model.  As part of the deal, Westinghouse agreed to provide China with key technical knowledge necessary to enable China to eventually manufacture its own version of the AP1000 reactor, to be named the CAP1400.  After Westinghouse took bankruptcy in 2017, the company successfully emerged from bankruptcy and was acquired by Brookfield Business Partners.  The first AP1000 reactor, the Sanmen No. 1 in China’s Zhejiang province, entered commercial operation in September 2018.
China is now focusing much of its attention on its own reactor, the Hualong One.  It is based on the AP1000 design and developed by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC).  The first reactors powered by the Hualong One are the Fuqing 5 and 6 in the province of Fujian which began commercial operation in January and March 2021 respectively.  CNNC then installed two units in Pakistan, the Karachi 2 and Karachi 3.  Both were in commercial operation by mid-2022.
The AP1000 is considered a generation 3+ reactor technology.  Advanced generation reactors feature higher operating efficiency, greater safety and design that uses fewer pumps and other moving parts in order to simplify construction and operation and make emergency responses more dependable.  “Passive” safety systems are built-in that require no outside support, such as external electric power and human action, to kick in.  For example, the AP1000 features systems for passive core cooling, passive leak containment cooling and leak containment isolation.  Passive systems rely on the use of gravity, natural circulation and/or compressed gas in order to react to emergencies.
China hopes to be a major exporter of its nuclear power equipment and expertise to other nations, in the same way that it is a leading exporter of wind and solar equipment.  Elsewhere, by 2024, Russia was, or had been, in discussion with dozens of less-developed nations regarding the possibility of having Russian firms construct nuclear power plants for them.
The Middle East, where industrial and residential needs for electricity may climb, is a ripe area for nuclear power plant development.  Saudi Arabia hopes to build 17 gigawatts of nuclear energy after 2040, beginning the process to issue a license to build in late 2022.  Nearby in the UAE, the government has awarded a South Korean consortium called Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) with a contract for the construction of four new nuclear plants at a cost of $18.6 billion.  Three were in operation as of October 2022 with a fourth under construction.
Kepco and an affiliate, KHNP, developed its own reactor design in 1995, based on an American reactor, which was replicated over and over instead of customizing new plants.  The result was a gain in expertise and efficiency and prices fell.  As of late 2022, South Korea had 25 operable reactors and three under construction.  President Yoon Suk-yeol set a target for nuclear power to provide 30% of South Korea’s electricity by 2030.
While many truly revolutionary technologies for nuclear power are under consideration, research or development, actual commercialization of a concept would take many years, and many will not succeed.  The challenges of finding investors and government subsidies, developing and testing prototypes or demonstration units, and getting through the regulatory and licensing maze are enormous.
Small Modular Reactors (“SMRs):  A Small Modular Reactor (SMR) is a type of nuclear reactor, intended for electric power generation, that is much smaller, less complex and much less expensive to construct than traditional nuclear power plants (which can cost tens of billions of dollars).  Some developers intend for the components to be constructed in pieces in factories and then assembled on-site.  Thus, the same design could be used repeatedly, which is a key to successful economics for this strategy.  Extremely high safety standards for the reactors are stressed.  SMRs could be located reasonably close to the industrial areas or communities that need electric power and could be assembled and put into operation relatively quickly.  Several firms are pursuing these mini-reactor designs, including NuScale Power.  It has been in discussion with several potential customers and received approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2023 of the design of its 50-megawatt reactor.  The first plant to use this reactor is not expected until the early 2030s.  Engineering giant Fluor Corporation is the major shareholder of Nuscale.
Another U.S. leader in SMRs is Alameda, California-based Kairos Power (  It has received approval for construction of a “demonstration” unit (not a commercial unit) for its SMR technology, which will be sited in the state of Tennessee.  Another SMR startup is Last Energy (
Elsewhere, the GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy company ( is an SMR contender.  It may construct units in Poland.  China has two SMR units in operation at one of its nuclear energy sites.  Many observers in the U.S. feel that America has the technology and engineering lead in the SMR field and see this sector as a way for America to greatly boost exports of advanced nuclear systems and related services.
Other Advanced Technologies:  Yet another alternative to traditional nuclear reactors is thorium liquid fuel reactors, which are fueled by molten fluoride salt containing thorium.  Thorium is far more abundant than uranium and it creates uranium 223 continuously, resulting in approximately 90 times as much energy from the same quantity of uranium.  In addition, it generates less waste, which itself has a much shorter half-life than uranium.  India has significant reserves of thorium (about 319,999 tons or 13% of the world’s total) and has been working on the technology since the 1950s.  Since then, about one ton of thorium oxide fuel has been irradiated experimentally in pressurized heavy water reactors and has been reprocessed, according to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC).  A reprocessing center for thorium fuels is being built at Kalpakkam.
In the EU, a partnership of laboratories and universities are researching a safer nuclear technology based on the “molten salt fast reactor.”  The technology is based on blending molten salt with nuclear fuel and can work with either uranium-based fuels or thorium.  The reactors don’t require large containment structures and use less fuel, making them viable for mass production in factories and potentially combined in arrays to create larger power plants.  The end goal is a cleaner, safer and more cost-effective reactor.  China is also actively researching a liquid-thorium fuel reactor.

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