Siting a Nuclear Power Facility Is Both Art and Science

Siting a Nuclear Power Facility Is Both Art and Science

With governments and industry engaging more frequently and decisively on how nuclear energy can help meet their climate, electrification, and economic goals, attention is now turning to how we get the needed capacity built. While extending the operating lives of existing nuclear plants, some countries will need to build new nuclear capacity to meet their goals. But siting new commercial nuclear power plants is a challenge.

Getting the job done right is actually about optimizing generation assets and output distribution. Nuclear energy is a proven source of clean, reliable, affordable, and flexible power, but to realize its benefits fully, effective siting will be key.

There are two schools of thought about the process of selecting an optimal site for new commercial nuclear generation facilities. One belief is that siting a new facility is a purely technical process; the other one suggests it’s an art form. In my many years of working as a subject matter expert in clean energy project siting, I have learned that siting nuclear projects is really both: It’s as much a science as it is art.

As both nuclear and non-nuclear countries look at siting new commercial nuclear projects, some are relying on existing regulatory frameworks, while others are building on existing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recommendations. Their regulatory frameworks range from those that have established well-defined siting requirements to those still developing legislative and regulatory processes. For the most part, regulatory frameworks have historically focused on technical requirements that ensure safety and security.

My experience has taught me that we need both art and science to make siting new energy projects effective and successful. Having worked with models that optimize extended lists of interdependent variables and sub-variables with different qualitative and quantitative qualifiers, I know that a scientific approach can produce technically feasible results. However, including variables that account for social impacts, namely a project’s impact on affected communities and their livelihoods, will likely produce the best results.

Using qualitative and quantitative measures for each variable can identify sites that may seem ideal on paper. However, some preferred or primary sites can be erroneously evaluated because some variables were subject to a weighing methodology that is generally subjective. Other variables are evaluated by “go” or “no-go” qualifiers. History has shown that only two categories of requirements lead to go or no-go decisions: safety and social acceptance. Both should have the ultimate influence over siting decisions. Not one or the other, but both must meet the targeted thresholds.

Generally, scientific reviews identify and assess essential variables, such as geology, hydrology, and seismology. Experts interpret these variables within a regulated evaluation scheme that must meet established criteria. Most variable characteristics are reviewed regularly by regulators and adapted to meet industry best practices and standards.

Additional variables, such as socio-economic impacts on the region and the need to build more social infrastructure (roads, schools, clinics, and housing, for example), should also be evaluated and integrated into the engagement and impact assessment processes. These social and political considerations are part of the siting decision-making process. Failing to include these variables could lead to the unfortunate dismissal of ideal sites.

For example, an industry-led siting study that included only technical variables and project proponents’ priorities failed to complete the site selection process. The siting process failed to include variables that correlated with the objectives and values of the communities where the project was proposed. Long gone are the days when community engagement is a ticked box. Engagement with communities needs to start as early as possible to allow for meaningful input and feedback. Citizens of communities near the site will live with the risks and benefits associated with the facility for generations to come.

However, surveys from residents living close to nuclear power plants report that local communities are generally very favorable and view the plants as excellent neighbors. For example, a survey conducted in May 2022 for the Nuclear Energy Institute by Bisconti Research Inc. found that 91% of nuclear power plant neighbors hold a favorable impression of their plant, 88% are favorable to nuclear energy, and 78% would find a new reactor acceptable at the plant site. Even more (86%) would find a small modular reactor (SMR) acceptable.

Interest in repurposing coal power plants with new nuclear energy technologies is becoming mainstream. Experts have conducted extensive analyses on the value of reusing existing local assets such as transmission lines, plant assets, and a skilled workforce. Still, the decommissioned coal plant will likely need to be replaced with new generation due to the system’s power demand. Coal power plants are considered baseload and provide significant reliability. Replacing this power generation with renewable resources would require a considerable amount of generation assets, land, and major system upgrades that are not always realistic.

For example, a U.S. Department of Energy report suggests that hundreds of U.S. coal power plant sites could convert to nuclear power plant sites. Coal-fired plants in the U.S. range from 5 MW to more than 3,600 MW. The average coal power plant produces well over 300 MW, the defined upper limit of what a single SMR can produce. This makes one-for-one replacements not feasible in many cases.

Another option is to deploy multiple units at the brownfield site or nearby, or to use a distributed generation approach. In these cases, comprehensive siting analyses would be required. As asset owners investigate these options, they must consider the possibility of site remediation and asset reuse.

Unfortunately, most regulators have not determined an efficient regulatory path for repurposing coal power plant sites. In certain instances, new nuclear plant regulatory processes and environmental data from the coal plants are the responsibility of different agencies. Therefore, the government must direct agencies to collaborate to meet the challenge of bringing online cleaner power generation. In such instances, the agencies could develop a data equivalency evaluation process that would enable them to reuse data. A similar system was created to evaluate international credentials for medical professionals immigrating to new countries. The system identified the gap in education and experience from origination to landing countries required for professional credentialing.

Other options for siting include increased flexibility regarding some of the siting variables. Without compromising community acceptability, safety, and security, some siting variables could become more fluid to expedite the deployment of new nuclear generation to meet energy needs and climate change targets. An example of such fluidity is represented through changes in project partnerships.

Historically, utilities and public sector entities were the primary owners/operators of nuclear power plants. Today, we’re seeing multinational public-private partnership (P3) agreements as energy-intensive industries seek firm clean energy sources. This includes countries considering collaborating on new nuclear energy generation as joint owners to produce exports through transmission lines or other energy products for both parties. This could be especially attractive when one country is well ahead on regulatory framework, and when cost and energy generation-sharing are mutually beneficial. These partnerships also influence siting requirements.

A more elusive variable is time. How will time affect siting, and the eventual design and operation of a power plant? Time is the only variable that we can’t predict, but we can plan for it. Socio-political environments are always changing and will influence energy supply/demand, while site safety remains non-negotiable. When siting nuclear generation, plant lifespan is an essential consideration, as some plants can operate for 80 years or more. Fuel supply, non-proliferation agreements, and waste management are also significant security considerations and could be identified as “go” or “no-go” variables. There is no doubt that time will have an influence over some variables and their qualifications.

Ultimately, siting commercial nuclear energy projects is both an art and a science. Both must be applied while selecting, evaluating, and exploiting sites for clean firm energy generation, such as nuclear power. It requires willingness to work across multiple disciplines, while also applying both art and science. Siting processes must be flexible and able to adapt to newly available information, build on best practices, and adopt new technologies. These important long-term decisions require an investment in time, knowledge, and an appreciation for varied viewpoints.

R.J. Roux has worked in the clean energy generation industry for more than 20 years. Roux has worked with governments, utilities, and private industry to create siting studies that identify regions that would benefit from clean firm energy.

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