The spike in the oil price had one beneficial effect. It got governments and policymakers actively considering long term power costs again, a subject that had received little more than lip service when oil, gas and coal costs remained low. When oil prices reached more than $100/barrel and thermal coal and gas prices correspondingly increased, the alternatives were more than dusted down. In fact, many were pushed into the fast lane. Of all the alternative energy sources nuclear is probably the most interesting from a metals perspective. The technology requires many exotic metals like zirconium for fuel cells and corrosion resistant stainless steels, not to mention the metals for turbine blades, casings and pipe work. The plants themselves rely heavily on forgings and precision machined parts. It is interesting to see that for many of the enhancements to existing facilities and installation of new forging capabilities, nuclear application and capability has become a growing consideration in the selection of forging plant capability and suitability.
Following Chenobyl and Three Mile Island power station accidents, nuclear was given a bad name and it is fair to say it fell out of favor in many countries as a main stream power generation process. Only in France (57 reactors) and Japan (55 reactors) was it still favored as the main method of electricity generation. In the USA (104 reactors) no new nuclear reactors were built between Three Mile Island in 1979 and the end of the century. That is all about to change according to the World Nuclear Organisation. Applications for new power generation facilities have been coming in fast and furious in developed countries. Japan has 11 planned and the USA has 12 with another 20 proposed. But it’s the developing world where an alternative to fossil fuels has been so vigorously pursued. Russia has 11 planned, India 10 and China 24, with a further 76 proposed. The developing world with their much simpler planning laws and controlled media have far fewer hurdles to license facilities that a minority than the west. The reality is unless China, India and Russia for example fully embrace low carbon emission, nuclear power generation they will never achieve even reasonable levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the decades ahead (nuclear power doesn’t in itself release greenhouse gasses but the construction of nuclear facilities involve massive releases in the production of cement and steel compared to coal or gas plants).
Early next week we will look at some of the metals that play a part in the nuclear industry and how a growth in generating capacity could affect the price and availability of these materials and/or specialist metal processes involved in creating the equipment for nuclear power generation.