Power Talk

Technology Review speaks with France’s head of nuclear energy.

France leads the world in the civilian use of nuclear power – almost 80 percent of its electricity is generated with uranium. The person who runs that enterprise is Anne Lauvergeon, chairman of the executive board at Areva, a $15-billion behemoth formed out of state-owned French companies and the former nuclear operations division of Siemens. Areva is involved in everything from reactor design to nuclear waste disposal.

In September, the U.S. division of Areva announced that it would build at least four nuclear plants in a joint venture with Baltimore, MD-based Constellation Energy Group. If the projects go forward, they would be the first new nuclear power facilities commissioned in the United States since the late 1970s.

Freelance writer Spencer Reiss recently interviewed Lauvergeon for Technology Review.

Technology Review: Are we looking at a nuclear boom?

Anne Lauvergeon: Globally we expect between 150 and 250 new reactors to go into service over the next twenty years. About 100 of those will replace older existing units, meaning a worldwide total of 500 to 600 reactors by 2025. Longer term, one big unknown is the possibility of more aggressive carbon-reduction policies. If the world’s twelve leading nations followed France’s example, global carbon emissions would be reduced 20 percent. We may also see broader uses of nuclear power for things other than electricity generation – to produce hydrogen, for instance, and desalinated water.

TR: At $2 billion each, that’s roughly half a trillion dollars in all – do you see the cost coming down?

AL: Nuclear construction costs are only slightly higher than modern “clean” coal plants, and with much lower fuel costs afterward. With standardized and evolutionary reactor designs, stabilized regulation, and good engineering, nuclear is one of the most economic ways to produce electricity. It’s a myth that nuclear is expensive. And that’s without including climate-change costs in the price of energy, which is something we clearly need to do.

TR: How seriously do you take political opposition?

AL: Anti-nuclear activists carry on as though nothing has changed. At a time when China and India are planning reactors on a massive scale and when the planet faces a major climate emergency, arguing that the world should drop nuclear energy becomes less and less convincing.

TR: What about proliferation dangers?

AL: The “problem” countries are all specific cases, calling for a rigorous, watchful, multilateral approach. As part of that, discussions are underway to set up a system of procurement guarantees for countries willing to refrain from developing certain fuel cycles. We have to be realistic – we are not going to be able to deny Turkey or Indonesia or Venezuela access to civil nuclear energy.

TR: And the waste question?

AL: Parliamentary and scientific committees in France have confirmed beyond doubt that we can reduce waste toxicity by a factor of about ten and volume by a factor up to five. It’s a sustainable solution. Moreover, such treatment allows recycling of up to 96 percent of the fissionable material. A lot of the controversy about nuclear waste would end if these facts were better known and acknowledged.

TR: In 2050 will we still be building water-cooled reactors?

AL: Water reactors are a proven technology. Over the next few decades, fuel costs, waste issues and other factors may encourage the greater efficiency of “fast neutron” reactors. We may also the see new markets emerge for high-temperature or very high-temperature reactors, designed for the chemical industry and hydrogen production.

TR: What are the chances that some new technology could turn the whole energy question upside down – nuclear fusion, for example?

AL: All the fundamental concepts and theoretical knowledge about energy took tremendous jumps forward at the beginning of the 20th century. The problem is not a lack of energy! The challenge is to provide it to everybody, everywhere, under economical and environmentally acceptable conditions. Fossil fuels, renewables, nuclear fission and fusion – they’ll all continue to progress, but none of them will turn the energy question upside down.

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