Global nuclear power capacity increased slightly in 2014 according to the World Nuclear Association1:
- Five new reactors (4.76 gigawatts (GW)) began supplying electricity (three in China, one each in Argentina and Russia), and three were permanently shut down (Vermont Yankee, USA; Fukushima Daiichi #5 and #6).
- There are now 437 'operable' reactors (377.7 GW) compared with 435 reactors (375.3 GW) a year ago. Thus the number of reactors increased by two (0.5%) and nuclear generating capacity increased by 2.4 GW (0.6%). (For comparison, around 100 GW of solar and wind power capacity were built in 2014, up from 74 GW in 2013.2)
- Construction started on just three reactors during 2014, one each in Belarus, the United Arab Emirates, and Argentina. A total of 70 reactors (74 GW) are under construction.
Thus a long-standing pattern of stagnation continues. Global nuclear power capacity grew by 10.6% in the two decades from 1995−2014, and just 2.6% in the decade from 2005−2014.3
The pattern of stagnation is likely to persist. Steve Kidd, a nuclear consultant who worked for the World Nuclear Association for 17 years, wrote in a May 2014 article: "Upper scenarios showing rapid nuclear growth in many countries including plants starting up in new countries now look very unlikely, certainly before the late 2020s. If there is to be a nuclear renaissance, it is now much more likely to happen later, and with a new generation of reactors. On the other hand, predictions that another major accident would shut down nuclear in lots of countries have been negated by the experience of Fukushima. Although there remain some uncertainties, the outlying upper and lower cases are much less credible than before."4
Despite 20 years of stagnation, the World Nuclear Association remains upbeat. Its latest report, The World Nuclear Supply Chain: Outlook 2030, envisages the start-up of 266 new reactors by 2030.5 The figure is implausible − it would require completion of the 70 reactors under construction, start-to-finish construction of another 196 reactors, and start-to-finish construction of dozens more reactors to replace those that are shut down ... all in the space of 15 years! If only the World Nuclear Association took bets on its ridiculous projections.
Nuclear Energy Insider is more sober and reflective in an end-of-year review published in December: "As we embark on a new year, there are distinct challenges and opportunities on the horizon for the nuclear power industry. Many industry experts believe that technology like Small Nuclear Reactors (SMR) represent a strong future for nuclear. Yet, rapidly growing renewable energy sources, a bountiful and inexpensive supply of natural gas and oil, and the aging population of existing nuclear power plants represent challenges that the industry must address moving forward."6
Steve Kidd is still more downbeat, arguing that nuclear advocates have not made much progress gaining public acceptance over the past few years.7 Kidd writes: "[W]e have seen no nuclear renaissance (instead, a notable number of reactor closures in some countries, combined with strong growth in China) ... Countries such as Germany and Switzerland that claim environmental credentials are moving strongly away from nuclear. Even with rapid nuclear growth in China, nuclear's share in world electricity is declining. The industry is doing little more than hoping that politicians and financiers eventually see sense and back huge nuclear building programmes. On current trends, this is looking more and more unlikely. The high and rising nuclear share in climate-friendly scenarios is false hope, with little in the real outlook giving them any substance. Far more likely is the situation posited in the World Nuclear Industry Status Report8 ... Although this report is produced by anti-nuclear activists, its picture of the current reactors gradually shutting down with numbers of new reactors failing to replace them has more than an element of truth given the recent trends."
Kidd's comments on renewables are also worth quoting: "The nuclear industry giving credence to climate change from fossil fuels has simply led to a stronger renewables industry. Nuclear seems to be "too difficult" and gets sidelined − as it has within the entire process since the original Kyoto accords. And now renewables, often thought of as useful complements to nuclear, begin to threaten it in power markets when there is abundant power from renewables when the wind blows and the sun shines."7
Kidd proposes reducing nuclear costs by simplifying and standardising current reactor designs. Meanwhile, as the International Energy Agency's World Economic Outlook 2014 report noted, nuclear growth will be "concentrated in markets where electricity is supplied at regulated prices, utilities have state backing or governments act to facilitate private investment." Conversely, "nuclear power faces major challenges in competitive markets where there are significant market and regulatory risks, and public acceptance remains a critical issue worldwide."9
Four countries supposedly driving a nuclear renaissance
Let's briefly consider countries where the number of power reactors might increase or decrease by 10 or more over the next 15−20 years. Generally, it is striking how much uncertainty there is about the nuclear programs in these countries.
China is one of the few exceptions. China has 22 operable reactors, 27 under construction and 64 planned. Significant, rapid growth can be expected unless China's nuclear program is derailed by a major accident or a serious act of sabotage or terrorism.10
In the other three countries supposedly driving a nuclear renaissance − Russia, South Korea and India − growth is likely to be modest and slow.
Russia has 34 operating reactors, nine under construction and 31 planned. Only three reactors have begun operation over the past decade, and the pattern of slow growth is likely to continue. As for Russia's ambitious nuclear export program, Steve Kidd noted in October 2014 that it "is reasonable to suggest that it is highly unlikely that Russia will succeed in carrying out even half of the projects in which it claims to be closely involved".11
South Korea has 23 operating reactors, five under construction and eight planned. Earlier plans for rapid nuclear expansion have been derailed by the Fukushima disaster, a major scandal over forged safety documents, and a hacking attack on Korea Hydro's computer network.12 Growth will be, at most, modest and slow.
India has 21 operating reactors, six under construction and 22 planned. But India's nuclear program is in a "deep freeze" according to a November 2014 article in the Hindustan Times.13 Likewise, India Today reported on January 8: "The Indian nuclear programme is on the brink of distress. For the past four years, no major tender has gone through − a period that was, ironically, supposed to mark the beginning of an Indian nuclear renaissance in the aftermath of the landmark India−US civil nuclear deal."14
India's energy minister Piyush Goyal said in November 2014 that the government remains "cautious" about developing nuclear power. He pointed to waning interest in the US and Europe: "This government would like to be cautious so that we are not saddled with something only under the garb of clean energy or alternate energy; something which the West has discarded and is sought to be brought to India."15
A November 2014 article in The Hindu newspaper notes that three factors have put a break on India's reactor-import plans: "the exorbitant price of French- and U.S.-origin reactors, the accident-liability issue, and grass-roots opposition to the planned multi-reactor complexes."16 In addition, unresolved disagreements regarding safeguards and non-proliferation assurances are delaying US and European investment in India's nuclear program.17
Saudi Arabia last year announced plans to build 16 reactors by 2032. Already, the timeline has been pushed back from 2032 to 2040.18 As with any country embarking on a nuclear power program for the first time, Saudi Arabia faces daunting logistical and workforce issues.19 Numerous nuclear supplier are lining up to supply Saudi Arabia's nuclear power program but political obstacles could easily emerge, not least because Saudi officials (and royalty) have repeatedly said that the Kingdom will build nuclear weapons if Iran's nuclear program is not constrained.20
South Africa's on-again off-again nuclear power program is on again with plans for 9.6 GW of nuclear capacity in addition to the two operating reactors at Koeberg.21 In 2007, state energy utility Eskom approved a plan for 20 GW of new nuclear capacity. Areva's EPR and Westinghouse's AP1000 were short-listed and bids were submitted. But in 2008 Eskom announced that it would not proceed with either of the bids due to a lack of finance. Easy come, easy go.
Thus the latest plan for 9.6 GW of new nuclear capacity in South Africa is being treated with scepticism. Academic Prof. Steve Thomas noted in a July 2014 report: "Overall, a renewed call for tenders (or perhaps bilateral negotiations with a preferred bidder) is likely to produce the same result as 2008: a very high price for an unproven technology that will only be financeable if the South African public, either in the form of electricity consumers or as taxpayers, is prepared to give open ended guarantees."22
Pro-nuclear commentator Dan Yurman is also sceptical: "Depending on who's pricing analysis you accept, the reactors alone will cost between [US]$5000 (Rosatom) and $6500/Kw (Eskom) or between $48 billion and $62.4 billion. Adding in balance of plant equipment and power line infrastructure, and the total price tag heads north to between $65 billion and $84 billion. Given that the intended power purchase firm is state-owned Eskom, which is perpetually broke due to government resistance to rate increases, the entire exercise seems implausible at this scale. ... Almost no one believes that as long as Zuma is in power that anything remotely resembling an orderly procurement process is likely to take place."23
Iran has one operable power reactor. Last year, Russia and Iran signed a contract to build two power reactors, and they signed a protocol envisaging possible construction of an additional six reactors.24
Plans for significant nuclear power expansion in one or two other countries − such as the Pakistani government's plan for 40 GW of nuclear capacity by 2050 − are implausible.25
Now to briefly consider those countries where a significant decline of nuclear power is possible or likely over the next 15−20 years.
Patterns of stagnation or slow decline in north America and western Europe can safely be predicted. Steve Kidd wrote in May 2014 that uranium demand (and nuclear power capacity) "will almost certainly fall in the key markets in Western Europe and North America" in the period to 2030.4 In January 2014, the European Commission forecast that EU nuclear generating capacity of 131 GW in 2010 will decline to 97 GW in 2025.26
The United States has 99 operable reactors. Five reactors are under construction, "with little prospect for more" according to Oilprice.com.27 Decisions to shut down just as many reactors have been taken in the past few years. As the Financial Times noted last year, two decisions that really rattled the industry were the closures of Dominion Resources' Kewaunee plant in Wisconsin and Entergy's Vermont Yankee − both were operating and licensed to keep operating into the 2030s, but became uneconomic to keep in operation.28
The US Energy Information Administration estimated in April 2014 that 10.8 GW of nuclear capacity − around 10% of total US nuclear capacity − could be shut down by the end of the decade.29
The most that the US nuclear industry can hope for is stagnation underpinned by new legislative and regulatory measures favouring nuclear power along with multi-billion dollar government handouts. The situation is broadly similar in the UK − the nuclear power industry there is scrambling just to stand still.
France's lower house of Parliament voted in October 2014 to cut nuclear's share of electricity generation from 75% to 50% by 2025, to cap nuclear capacity at 63.2 GW, and to pursue a renewables target of 40% by 2030 with various new measures to promote the growth of renewables.30,31 The Senate will vote on the legislation early this year.
However there will be many twists and turns in French energy policy. Energy Minister Segolene Royal said on January 13 that France should build a new generation of reactors, and she noted that the October 2014 energy transition bill did not include a 40-year age limit for power reactors as ecologists wanted.32
Germany's government is systematically pursuing its policy of phasing out nuclear power by 2023. That said, nothing is certain: the nuclear phase-out policy of the social democrat / greens coalition government in the early 2000s was later overturned by a conservative government.
Japan's 48 operable reactors are all shut down. A reasonable estimate is that three-quarters (36/48) of the reactors will restart in the coming years. Before the Fukushima disaster, Tokyo planned to add another 15−20 reactors to the fleet of 55 giving a total of 70−75 reactors. Thus, Japan's nuclear power industry will be around half the size it might have been if not for the Fukushima disaster.
The elephant in the room − ageing reactors
The problem of ageing reactors came into focus in 2014 − and will remain in focus for decades to come with the average age of the world's power reactors now 29 years and steadily increasing.33,34
Problems with ageing reactors include:
- the increased risk of accidents (and associated problems such as generally inadequate accident liability arrangements);
- an increased rate of unplanned reactors outages (at one point last year, less than half of the UK's nuclear capacity was available due to multiple outages35);
- costly refurbishments;
- debates over appropriate safety standards for reactors designed decades ago; and
- the costs associated with reactor decommissioning and long-term nuclear waste management.
Greenpeace highlighted the problems associated with ageing reactors with the release of a detailed report last year36, and emphasised the point by breaking into six ageing European nuclear plants on 5 March 2014.37
The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its World Energy Outlook 2014 report: "A wave of retirements of ageing nuclear reactors is approaching: almost 200 of the 434 reactors operating at the end of 2013 are retired in the period to 2040, with the vast majority in the European Union, the United States, Russia and Japan."9
IEA chief economist Fatih Birol said: "Worldwide, we do not have much experience and I am afraid we are not well-prepared in terms of policies and funds which are devoted to decommissioning. A major concern for all of us is how we are going to deal with this massive surge in retirements in nuclear power plants."38
The World Energy Outlook 2014 report estimates the cost of decommissioning reactors to be more than US$100 billion (€89b) up to 2040, adding that "considerable uncertainties remain about these costs, reflecting the relatively limited experience to date in dismantling and decontaminating reactors and restoring sites for other uses."
The IEA's head of power generation analysis, Marco Baroni, said that even excluding waste disposal costs, the final cost could be as much as twice as high as the $100 billion estimate, and that decommissioning costs per reactor can vary by a factor of four.34
Baroni said the issue was not the decommissioning cost per reactor but "whether enough funds have been set aside to provide for it." Evidence of inadequate decommissioning funds is mounting. To give just one example, Entergy estimates a cost of US$1.24 billion (€1.10b) to decommission Vermont Yankee, but the company's decommissioning trust fund for the plant − US$0.67 billion − is barely half that amount.39
Michael Mariotte, President of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, noted in a recent article: "Entergy, for example, has only about half the needed money in its decommissioning fund (and even so still found it cheaper to close the reactor than keep it running); repeat that across the country with multiple and larger reactors and the shortfalls could be stunning. Expect heated battles in the coming years as nuclear utilities try to push the costs of the decommissioning fund shortfalls onto ratepayers."40
The nuclear industry has a simple solution to the problem of old reactors: new reactors. But the battles over ageing and decommissioned reactors − and the raiding of taxpayers' pockets to cover shortfalls − will make it that much more difficult to convince politicians and the public to support new reactors.
1. WNA Weekly Digest, 16 Jan 2015, 'Slight increase in nuclear capacity in 2014',
2. Tierney Smith, 9 Jan 2015, '5 Countries Leading the Way Toward 100% Renewable Energy', http://ecowatch.com/2015/01/09/countries-leading-way-renewable-energy/
4. Steve Kidd, 6 May 2014, 'The future of uranium – higher prices to come?', www.neimagazine.com/opinion/opinionthe-future-of-uranium-higher-prices-t...
5. WNA, 2014, 'The World Nuclear Supply Chain: Outlook 2030, http://online-shop.world-nuclear.org/bfont-size18pxthe-world-nuclear-sup...
6. John Johnson, 5 Dec 2014, 'Nuclear power to change shape in 2015', http://analysis.nuclearenergyinsider.com/small-modular-reactors/nuclear-...
7. Steve Kidd, 21 Jan 2015, 'Is climate change the worst argument for nuclear?', www.neimagazine.com/opinion/opinionis-climate-change-the-worst-argument-...
9. International Energy Agency, 2014, 'World Economic Outlook 2014', www.worldenergyoutlook.org
10. China's nuclear power plans: safety and security challenges, 19 Dec 2014, Nuclear Monitor #796, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitors
11. Steve Kidd, 6 Oct 2014, "The world nuclear industry – is it in terminal decline?", www.neimagazine.com/opinion/opinionthe-world-nuclear-industry-is-it-in-t...
12. Heesu Lee, 15 Jan 2015, 'Fukushima Meltdowns Pervade S. Korea Debate on Reactor Life', www.bloomberg.com/news/2015-01-14/fukushima-meltdowns-pervade-korea-deba...
13. Shishir Gupta and Jayanth Jacob, 30 Nov 2014, 'Govt plans N-revival, focuses on investor concerns', www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/govt-plans-n-revival-looks-for-answers...
14. Pranab Dhal Samanta, 8 Jan 2015, 'Splitting the liability atom', http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/obama-republic-day-visit-nuclear-powe...
15. 6 Nov 2014, 'Govt cautious about tapping nuclear energy for power generation', www.thehindu.com/news/national/govt-cautious-on-westdiscarded-nuclear-te...
16. Brahma Chellaney, 19 Nov 2014, 'False promise of nuclear power', www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/false-promise-of-nuclear-power/article6612...
17. Indrani Bagchi, 19 Nov 2014, 'American officials put up hurdles, try to scuttle India-US nuclear deal', http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/American-officials-put-up-hurdl...
18. Reuters, 19 Jan 2015, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/01/19/saudi-nuclear-energy-idUKL6N0UY...
19. Dan Yurman, 24 Jan 2015, 'Saudi Arabia delays its nuclear plans', http://neutronbytes.com/2015/01/24/saudi-arabia-delays-its-nuclear-plans/
20. 18 Sept 2014, 'Saudi Arabia's nuclear power program and its weapons ambitions', Nuclear Monitor #791, www.wiseinternational.org/node/4195
21. 'South Africa's stop-start nuclear power program', Nuclear Monitor #792, 2 Oct 2014, www.wiseinternational.org/node/4193
22. Steve Thomas, July 2014, 'Nuclear technology options for South Africa', http://earthlife.org.za/www/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/nuclear-cost_repo...
23. Dan Yurman, 6 Dec 2014, 'China jumps into the action in South Africa', http://neutronbytes.com/2014/12/06/china-makes-haste-to-develop-its-nucl...
24. 5 Dec 2014, 'Russia to build more reactors in Iran', Nuclear Monitor #795, www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitors
25. 20 Jan 2015, 'N-safeguards steps implemented: IAEA', www.dawn.com/news/1158113/n-safeguards-steps-implemented-iaea
26. WNN, 9 Jan 2014, 'Policies hold European nuclear steady', www.world-nuclear-news.org/EE-Politics-hold-European-nuclear-steady-0901...
27. Nick Cunningham, 9 Feb 2014, 'Wind and Gas Forcing Out Nuclear in Midwest', http://oilprice.com/Latest-Energy-News/World-News/Wind-and-Gas-Forcing-O...
28. Ed Crooks, 19 Feb 2014, 'Uneconomic US nuclear plants at risk of being shut down', www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/da2a6bc6-98fa-11e3-a32f-00144feab7de.html
29. Reuters, 29 Apr 2014, 'U.S. expects about 10 pct of nuclear capacity to shut by 2020', http://in.reuters.com/article/2014/04/28/utilities-nuclear-eia-idINL2N0N...
30. 10 Oct 2014, 'France to cut nuclear's share of power market to 50% by 2025', www.platts.com/latest-news/electric-power/london/france-to-cut-nuclears-...
31. Michel Rose, 15 Oct 2014, 'French energy transition law to cut red tape on renewables', http://planetark.org/enviro-news/item/72327
32. Reuters, 13 Jan 2015, 'French energy minister wants new nuclear reactors', www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/13/france-nuclear-idUSL6N0US1P320150113
33. Michael Mariotte, 3 April 2014, 'Nuclear reactors are getting old – and it's showing', www.wiseinternational.org/node/4056
34. Nina Chestney and Geert De Clercq, 19 Jan 2015, 'Global nuclear decommissioning cost seen underestimated, may spiral', www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/19/nuclear-decommissioning-idUSL6N0UV2BI...
35. Nuclear Free Local Authorities, 9 Dec 2014, 'NFLA concerns over the reliability of aging nuclear reactors in the UK', www.nuclearpolicy.info/docs/briefings/A241_%28NB127%29_Aging_nuclear_rea...
36. Greenpeace International, 2014, 'Lifetime extension of ageing nuclear power plants: Entering a new era of risk', www.greenpeace.nl/Global/nederland/2014/Documenten/Rapport%20Lifetime%20...
38. WNN, 12 Nov 2014, 'Nuclear industry shares IEA concern', www.world-nuclear-news.org/NP-Nuclear-industry-shares-IEA-concern-121114...
39. Robert Audette, 19 Dec 2014, 'Vermont Yankee decommissioning plan submitted to NRC', www.reformer.com/localnews/ci_27171602/vermont-yankee-decommissioning-pl...
40. Michael Mariotte, 5 Jan 2015, 'Nuclear industry goes hysterically ballistic over Yankee shutdown', http://safeenergy.org/2015/01/05/nuclear-industry-goes-hysterical