2016 in Review: The nuclear power renaissance ‒ blink and you'll miss it

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

Global nuclear power capacity increased by 9.2 gigawatts (GW) in 2016.1 By contrast, renewable electricity capacity growth was 153 GW in 20152 and almost certainly greater in 2016.

In broad terms, nuclear power has been stagnant for the past 20 years. Using figures from the World Nuclear Association (WNA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency, global nuclear capacity has grown 12.7% over the past 20 years and 5.7% over the past decade. But those figures include idle reactors in Japan and the inclusion of those reactors is, as former WNA executive Steve Kidd states, "misleading" and "clearly ridiculous".3 The World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) excludes 34 idle reactors in Japan (and one each in Taiwan and Sweden) from its calculations of current nuclear capacity. Using WNISR figures, nuclear capacity has grown 1.7% over the past 20 years and it has declined by 4.6% over the past decade.



Dec. 19964

347 GW

Dec. 20064

370 GW

Dec. 2016

391 GW (WNA ‒ including reactors in long-term outage)1

353 GW (WNISR ‒ excluding reactors in long-term outage)5

If we look more closely at recent figures, the picture is a little confusing. Global nuclear power capacity increased "slightly" in 2016 according to the pro-nuclear WNA1 while the anti-nuclear WNISR said that a "significant" number of new reactors came online.5 If there's some confusion now as to the trajectory of nuclear power, that confusion is likely to grow in the next few years. To explain, let's first look at WNA figures on reactor construction starts.


Jan. 2007

Jan. 2008

Jan. 2009

Jan. 2010

Jan. 2011

Jan. 2012

Jan. 2013

Jan. 2014

Jan. 2015

Jan. 2016

Jan. 2017

























The nuclear power 'renaissance' never materialized in the since that the number of 'operable' reactors has hovered between 430 and 450 for the past 20 years, with no clear trend in either direction.6 (The number of operating reactors is currently 406 according to the WNISR, which excludes reactors in long-term outage.5).

But we can see the 'renaissance' manifest in the sharp increase in construction starts in the few years preceding the March 2011 Fukushima disaster. Those reactors are starting to come online, and more will come online in the next few years. Thus 10 reactors came online in both 2015 and 2016 (a number not previously reached since 1990). And the number of grid connections over the past five years (32 from 2012‒2016) was considerably greater than during the five years before that (17 from 2007‒2011).

How will this play out in the coming years? Here are predicted start-up (grid connection) figures compiled by the World Nuclear Association:7

2016: 12 grid connections (only 10 reactors were grid connected)

2017: 18 grid connections anticipated

2018: 10 grid connections anticipated

2019: 8 grid connections anticipated

2020: 7 grid connections anticipated

We may have been premature in declaring the nuclear renaissance dead. Indeed we're right in the middle of the renaissance. It will likely span 2‒3 years and it will be a damp squib. Last year, 10 reactors were grid connected and four were permanently shut down. In 2017‒18, the World Nuclear Association anticipates 28 grid connections7; even if the number falls short of that figure (as it will), grid connections will exceed permanent shut-downs.

But that's as good as it gets for the nuclear industry. In truth, the industry is in a world of pain.

The reactor fleet is aging; most reactors are late middle-aged. The average age of the world's nuclear reactor fleet is 29 years, and more than half have operated for more than 30 years.8 Recent statistics on reactor shutdowns are heavily shaped by the 2011 Fukushima disaster ‒ there were 13 permanent shutdowns in that year alone. In the five years before 2011, there were 15 shutdowns; in the five years after 2011, 22 shutdowns. That trend is certain to continue:

  • The World Nuclear Association estimates 132 reactor shut-downs by 2035.9
  • The International Energy Agency anticipates a "wave of retirements of ageing nuclear reactors" and an "unprecedented rate of decommissioning" ‒ almost 200 reactor shut-downs between 2014 and 2040.10
  • According to a recent Nuclear Energy Insider article, up to 200 reactors are set to go offline in the next two decades.11

Thus 6‒10 reactors will need to be commissioned each year for the next 20‒25 years just to maintain current nuclear capacity.

The number of reactors under construction is slowly dropping. Using WNA figures, 71 reactors were under construction in January 2014 compared to 60 in January 2017. According to WNISR figures, the number is down from 67 to 55 over the same period. Again, that trend seems near-certain to continue because of a sharp drop in reactor construction starts: 50 from 2007‒2011 compared to 31 from 2012‒2016.12 Last year, there were just three construction starts.12


1. World Nuclear Association, 3 Jan 2017, 'Worldwide nuclear capacity continues to grow in 2016', www.world-nuclear-news.org/NP-Worldwide-nuclear-capacity-continues-to-gr...

2. IEA, 2016, 'Renewable Energy Medium-Term Market Report: Executive Summary', www.iea.org/Textbase/npsum/MTrenew2016sum.pdf

3. Steve Kidd, 13 Oct 2016, 'Nuclear power in the world – pessimism or optimism?', www.neimagazine.com/opinion/opinionnuclear-power-in-the-world-pessimism-...

4. https://www.iaea.org/PRIS/WorldStatistics/WorldTrendNuclearPowerCapacity...

5. Mycle Schneider, 9 Jan 2017, 'World Nuclear Industry Status as of 1 January 2017', www.worldnuclearreport.org/World-Nuclear-Industry-Status-as-of-1-January...

6. IAEA, 'Nuclear Power Capacity Trend', www.iaea.org/PRIS/WorldStatistics/WorldTrendNuclearPowerCapacity.aspx

7. World Nuclear Association, April 2016, 'Plans For New Reactors Worldwide', www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/...

8. Mycle Schneider, Antony Froggatt et al., 2016, 'World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2016', www.worldnuclearreport.org/IMG/pdf/20160713MSC-WNISR2016V2-HR.pdf

9. World Nuclear Association, 'The Nuclear Fuel Report: Global Scenarios for Demand and Supply Availability 2015-2035', Table 2.4, www.world-nuclear.org/our-association/publications/publications-for-sale...

10. IEA, 2014, 'World Energy Outlook 2014 Factsheet, www.iea.org/media/news/2014/press/141112_WEO_FactSheet_Nuclear.pdf

11. Karen Thomas, 25 Jan 2017, 'OECD expands decommissioning cost benchmarks ahead of closure surge', http://analysis.nuclearenergyinsider.com/oecd-expands-decommissioning-co...

12. Data compiled from IAEA, www.iaea.org/pris/