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A new nuclear race

A new nuclear race

The current state of global nuclear power is meta-stable. At international conferences, countries keep a close eye on each other. Only a small push would drastically change the situation towards rapid development of next-gen nuclear power technologies. Russia with its long history of technological breakthroughs is eager to take its part.

The expected new nuclear technological system would be based on so-called fast nuclear reactors and encompass a closed nuclear fuel cycle. This technology would be capable of solving the problem of generating capacities shortage and giving hope of eliminating the main burden of nuclear power, the nuclear waste stockpiles. In this case, fast expansion of nuclear power would be practically inevitable. New nuclear power technologies permit construction of scalable, reliable and clean capacities of virtually any size. In future, nuclear power would be capable to reduce the role of coal, oil and gas generation. Of course, it would be not a single-step event but quite a long process, but its consequences would be quick and roughly comparable with replacement of wire phones with wireless cell phone technologies.

The economic background for the expecting technological revolution is dozens of percentage points in the world power generation pie. In the “Nuclear world” scenario, structure of primary energy resources consumption, in terms of fuel equivalent, would drastically differ from that of today:

Fig. 1. Forecast of Primary Resource Consumption for 2050

A new nuclear race

The future energy market size could be roughly estimated on the basis of electricity consumption forecast for 2050 at about 45,000 TW*h and an electricity price of 0.05 (2006) dollars per kilowatt hour. Taking into account accompanying markets, we have a rough annual figure of about a thousand billion dollars.

World first nuclear technological platform with closed fuel cycle and minimum SNF burden would inevitably become a de facto standard, and in certain conditions, it would to become a de jure standard. It means that this platform is likely to occupy up to two thirds of world power market; all other competitors, supported by state protectionism, would “hold” together the rest.

Therefore, as soon as a country or corporation starts development of such fast nuclear system and the entire new technological platform, all the other players would be forced to do the same. The point is that creation of the new technological platform would immediately make traditional nuclear reactors obsolete and commercially unattractive.

That is what the current moment in global technological development is about.

Because of the Chernobyl accident, the diversification of generating capacities in nuclear energy was delayed for twenty years. Moreover, it has practically coincided with the next, upcoming stage - displacement of traditional thermal energy with nuclear power and mass construction of economically efficient, safe and clean large and middle-power reactors. Hence the actors in this global technological strategic game today are facing a difficult choice: to concentrate resources on more or less commercially viable Generation 3 reactors, or to embark on a technological venture and concentrate all effort on development of a new, far more competitive generation of units. Moreover, current economic calculations underestimate profitability of closed-cycle fast reactors for various technical reasons.

In fact, we are facing a typical “prisoners dilemma”. If none of the actors on reactor market starts work on “fast reactors” and closed fuel cycle, the current situation will be prolonged. If one of the actors develops a new technological platform and others do not, then the market would be completely redistributed in favor of innovator. If everyone succeeds in development of the new generation units, nuclear power would receive a number of bonuses at the expense of coal, gas, and to some extend of oil.

However nuclear market would experience serious competitive struggle where the winner receives superprofits, and others get return of investments and remain in the game.

It seems that when global nuclear industry actors grasp the “prisoners dilemma”, all nuclear countries and corporations will start working feverishly on the design of reactors and new generation power system.

This would be recorded in history as the “second nuclear race”.

Russia is capable to win the “second nuclear race” by consistently implementing hardly probable but possible “Nuclear Breakthrough” scenario for its nuclear industry. The core of this scenario is to establish a new technological platform as a system integrator for the entire energy system. The scenario includes intensive construction of all reactor types including sodium breeder reactors, closed-fuel cycle reactors integrated into an NPP, lead- cooled reactors, gas-cooled reactors with hydrogen cogeneration, and liquid-salt burner reactors. The problem of spent nuclear fuel would soon be generally solved. The longterm goal here is to make Russian Federation leader of the global nuclear energy market. The scenario requires clear political will at the state and corporate levels, as well as of the Academy of Sciences and the scientific and expert communities. Certainly, there are no reasons to postulate that this scenario would surely be implemented in Russia, but we are keen to do so.


Non-profit public think-tank Encyclopaedia, Russia.

Sergey Pereslegin, Director

Artiom Zheltov, Senior Analyst

This article is based on “Global Energy and Next-Generation Nuclear Technologies: Foresight of the Global Energy System 2010-2075” report by Future-Design Group for the Research Institute of Atomic Reactors of Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation; St. Petersburg, 2009.

Статья опубликована: Baltic Rim Economies, Quarterly Review, ISSUE NO. 1, 28 FEBRUARY 2011.

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