The revival of nuclear energy

The need to decarbonise the energy sector, along with heightened geopolitical tensions putting pressure on gas supplies, have convinced several states to reinvest in nuclear energy.

Extending the lifetime of existing power plants, launching new construction programmes, developing new reactor concepts and expanding uses are the key thrusts of this revival, which Michel Rochon explains to us in his capacity as Artelia’s head of nuclear development.

Can you explain briefly how nuclear energy is positioned today?

The need to reduce carbon emissions coupled with the ramp-up in electrification are driving this new enthusiasm for nuclear energy. It’s a generation method with a very small carbon footprint and a controllable output, and it can deliver large capacities with a good load factor on relatively compact sites.

These benefits, highlighted by the nuclear industry and scientists in the sector, are being picked up by political leaders who recognise nuclear energy as being one of the keys to achieving net zero carbon, while also building the strategic independence of their energy systems.

How is this playing out on a global and European scale?

In its statement at COP28, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared that all the available low-carbon energy sources must be used and that “the goal of global net zero carbon emissions can only be reached by 2050 with swift, sustained and significant investment in nuclear energy ”. The agency also pointed out that in addition to providing electricity, nuclear power “can help to decarbonize district heating, desalination, industry processes and hydrogen production”, in particular by “advancing innovative technologies, including small modular reactors (SMR)”. While underscoring the vital importance of safety, it also reiterated the need to continue operating the existing fleet of power plants. Some twenty countries, including the United States, France, Japan and the United Arab Emirates, have called for global nuclear power generation capabilities to be tripled by 2050.

At the instigation of France, a European nuclear alliance has brought together the countries which are looking to draw on nuclear energy, alongside renewables, to successfully complete their energy transition . It estimates that “nuclear power could provide up to 150 GW of electricity capacity to the European Union” by 2050, compared with about 100 GW today, “by continuing to operate the existing facilities, building 30 to 45 new reactors and developing small modular reactors ”.

What is the situation in France, where nuclear accounts for more than 70% of the energy mix?

Having long depended on nuclear energy, France now has one of the “lowest-carbon” energy mixes in the world along with a fully-fledged nuclear sector boasting industry-leading know-how. In addition to France spearheading the European and international impetus, in February 2022 President Macron announced a “renaissance” for the French nuclear industry, focusing on three key areas:

  • keeping existing plants in operation,
  • planning now to extend their lifetimes,
  • and rolling out a programme to build new nuclear reactors to anticipate the replacement of existing ones and keep pace with the increase in electricity consumption.

In 2023 the government decided to build a first series of six EPR2 rectors out of a planned total of 14, and earmarked additional funding in the context of the “France 2030” investment plan covering a number of areas including developing SMR and diversifying uses.

What role is engineering playing in this revival of nuclear power?

It is playing a vital role, because nuclear facilities are complex systems where ensuring safety is an absolute priority. Engineers are present – and under huge demand – over the entire life cycle from design through operation to dismantling.

During the design phase, engineers make a strategic contribution to the investments undertaken and the challenge of keeping to schedules. They monitor the latest developments in equipment and applicable regulations, incorporating proven technologies from other industry sectors. During the production phase, their challenge is to safeguard a high level of availability on plants that are operating and to prepare for periodic inspections, while maintaining and even improving the level of safety. These exacting requirements remain in place throughout the operating phase, and facilitate extensions of lifetimes beyond those initially planned. As for dismantling, this is an area of multiple challenges for engineers, such as designing special tools and developing processes for deconstructing facilities and recycling materials.

Engineers are also at the forefront in the development of SMRs, adapting designs and construction methods to meet new requirements such as compactness, modularity, mass production, transport , and competitiveness. They are also active players in the fuel sector, both at the upstream end of the cycle (extraction and enrichment) and the downstream end (reprocessing, short- and long-term storage).

What stance is Artelia adopting on nuclear energy?

We are strongly committed to decarbonisation, both through the solutions we implement for our clients in all fields of activity and through our own commitments as a responsible company (via our EcoVadis Platinum-rated CSR policy). Artelia views nuclear energy as a key driver of the transition to a low-carbon energy system, and has made it one of its strategic development priorities.

Group teams and subsidiaries have a strong track record of experience in the nuclear sector, stretching back nearly 40 years . Today, Artelia is operating in all branches of the sector: Defence, Fuel, Energy, and Research. We are in a position to support operators (of basic and secret basic nuclear facilities) and SMR developers, for whom we provide a mixed service package:

  • single- or multi-discipline studies on a ‘work package’ basis (undertaken mainly on a lump-sum basis);
  • all-trades design studies, tender documents, construction management and commissioning;
  • design-and-build or turnkey operations in a consortium-type venture or on a subcontracting basis with partners.

What are some of the projects in which Artelia is involved?

We are participating in many projects in the sector, including:

  • the Hinkley Point C EPR (UK),
  • the EPR 2 programme in France,
  • the Nuward SMR project,
  • ten-yearly inspections on reactors in operation in France (VD4-900, VD4-1300),
  • decommissioning the Phénix facilities,
  • creating or adapting research facilities (RJH, RHF, ITER, etc.), and upgrading machinery and equipment to earthquake resistance standards.

We design buildings, nuclear pools, hot cells, test loops, special doors, handling equipment and more. Our skills are called on by operators in a wide variety of fields such as liquid containment and water treatment, and hydraulic, thermal or thermohydraulic studies.

How does Artelia intend to participate in this nuclear revival?

Reviving nuclear energy is posing a huge industrial challenge for the entire sector, and Artelia is fully engaged in meeting it. Our key assets are our strong credentials in multi-disciplinary engineering and our solid capabilities enabling us to contribute to programmes such as MATCH, instigated by the French Nuclear Industry Association (GIFEN). We can call on more than 200 experienced staff members and a range of operational processes dedicated to the nuclear sector. We also offer the industry the highly diverse range of skills and resources available to a group with a workforce in excess of 8000.

Via our in-house career development entity, the Artelia Academy, we have created a “nuclear” career path to expand the skills of employees from other sectors in the specific features of the nuclear industry, and raise our teams’ awareness of nuclear safety right up to the highest levels of our organisation. To support projects launched by the French nuclear sector in Europe and beyond, we also mobilise our network of 60 branch offices across France and our international offices in 40 countries.

Written by Eric Robert, published on 16 janvier 2024.