You are here

Why nuclear energy is going nowhere (and other energy news)

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

An October 4 'Business Insider' article presents five charts from economic analysts Citigroup explaining "why nuclear energy is going nowhere":[1]

1) Nuclear now requires an up-front investment (overnight investment cost) five times greater than gas on a per Watt basis, while solar installation costs are cheaper still.

2) Nuclear may have lower operational costs than fossil fuels, but they're still more than the nearly non-existent operational costs of renewables.

3) This explains why, worldwide, nuclear investment is already trailing solar.

4) During the next two decades, demand for renewables will be greater than for nuclear.

5) If you think any help is coming from China, think again − solar capacity alone will eventually be larger than nuclear, and wind capacity will dwarf it.

Citigroup explains: "The capital cost of nuclear build has actually risen in recent decades in some developed markets, partly due to increased safety expenditure, and due to smaller construction programmes (i.e. lower economies of scale). Moreover the 'fixed cost' nature of nuclear generation in combination with its relatively high price (when back end liabilities are taken into account) also places the technology at a significant disadvantage; utilities are reluctant to enter into a very long term (20+ years of operation, and decades of aftercare provisioning) investment with almost no control over costs post commissioning, with the uncertainty and rates of change currently occurring in the energy mix."

Worldwatch Institute report on nuclear stagnation

A new Vital Signs Online report by the Worldwatch Institute notes that global nuclear generation capacity increased in 2012 by 4.2 gigawatts (GW) or 1.1% to 373.1 GW and the number of operational reactors increased by two units to 437.[2,3] The increases are net figures: three reactors with a total capacity of 1.3 GW were shut down in Canada and the UK, while three new plants in China and South Korea with a total capacity of just under 3 GW came online. In addition, two Canadian reactors (0.77 GW each) returned to service after 15 years off-line.

But those marginal increases mask a gloomy outlook for the industry. The report notes that nuclear power generating capacity increased by 75 GW in the quarter-century from 1987−2012; just one-quarter of the increase of 296 GW during the preceding quarter century.

The figures for nuclear generation (as opposed to capacity) are still more depressing (for the industry).[4] Annual nuclear electricity generation peaked in 2006 at 2,660 terrawatt-hours (TWh), falling to 2,346 TWh in 2012 (down 7% compared to 2011, down 12% from 2006). About three-quarters of this decline was due to the situation in Japan, but 16 other countries, including the top five nuclear generators, also decreased their nuclear generation.

The Worldwatch Institute report notes that nuclear power is now the only mainstream energy technology that does not show significant growth. Its share of the world's primary energy supply actually fell, from 6.4% in 2002 to just 4.5% a decade later.

"Three key factors account for the stagnancy of nuclear power," said Alexander Ochs, Worldwatch's Climate and Energy Director and one of the report's co-authors. "The first and most important one is that nuclear energy is not cost competitive with fossil fuels and renewable energy sources. It is just too expensive. Second are safety concerns. After the many accidents we have had over the years − with Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island just a few examples of some of the worst incidents; problems occur on a regular basis. And despite stricter oversight in some countries, public opposition to nuclear energy is high almost everywhere in the world. Finally, the storage of nuclear waste still remains unsolved. Nobody really knows what to do with it and nobody wants to have the hazardous material sit in their backyard."

Citibank report on renewables

Renewable energy will account for more than 70% of investment in new power generation by 2025, according to a Citibank report released in October. Of the nearly US$10 trillion dollars that will be poured into the power sector in the next decade, more than US$2 trillion will be invested in wind, followed by US $1.5 trillion in hydropower and US $1.3 trillion in solar power.[5]

While natural gas has cut into coal's dominance for power generation in the US, the report notes that in the longer run, the lower price of solar will make it increasingly attractive, especially during peak demand periods "Solar steals the most valuable part of electricity generation at the peak of the day when prices are highest," the Citibank report states, noting that German natural gas power plants have already said they are reluctant to build new generation because of the impact of solar power on their profits.

Citibank estimates that more than US$37 trillion will be invested in global energy infrastructure in the next two decades, with nearly half of that amount devoted to electricity generation. Oil production will account for about 37% of total investment, followed by natural gas at 23%.

Germany's energy crisis

Germany's coal and nuclear utilities are in trouble due to the growth of renewables.

Solar and wind energy production accounted for nearly 60% of Germany's electricity use on Thursday October 3 according to a study by energy consultant Bernard Chabot. At peak production − around noon that day − wind and energy were producing about 59.1% of the nation's power.[6] In July, Germany generated 5.1 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity from solar, a monthly record and 42% higher than July 2012. In January, wind turbines generated 5 TWh of electricity.[7]

RWE, Germany's largest power producer, has decided to radically depart from its traditional business model based on large-scale thermal power production. Confidential strategy documents discussed at a recent meeting of RWE's Supervisory Board make it clear that the company's leadership has accepted that it must shift away from its traditional heavy reliance on coal-fired and nuclear plants it if wants to survive in the new energy world created by Germany's and the EU's Energiewende. "The massive erosion of wholesale prices caused by the growth of German photovoltaics constitutes a serious problem for RWE which may even threaten the company's survival", states the company's Strategic Roadmap.[8]

In August, RWE said 3.1 GW of gas- and coal-fired generating capacity would be taken offline or shut down, representing 6% of its total capacity. The company said the boom in solar energy meant many of its power stations were no longer profitable. German rival E.On said it had shut down or left idle 6.5 GW of generating capacity.[7]

In September 2011, German industrial conglomerate Siemens announced its intention to withdraw entirely from the nuclear industry. Chief executive Peter Loescher said: "The chapter for us is closed." Siemens was responsible for building all Germany's existing nuclear power reactors.[9]

Carbon capture projects losing momentum

The number of projects that capture carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and industrial facilities is losing momentum, dropping from 75 to 65 worldwide since 2012, according to a study released in October. The Global CCS Institute, an Australian-funded research group supporting the deployment of carbon capture and storage technology worldwide, said in its annual survey that despite four new large-scale projects coming online this year, the rate of new projects entering the pipeline has slowed.[10]

[1] Rob Wile, 4 Oct 2013, 'In 5 Charts, Here's Why Nuclear Energy Is Going Nowhere',
[2] Worldwatch Institute, 9 Oct 2013
[4] World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013,
[5] Emily Pickrell, 10 Oct 2013, 'Citibank: Renewables will get bulk of world's new power investment',
[6] Clean Technica, 3 Oct 2013,
[7] Tierney Smith, 22 Aug 2013, 'Germany's record-breaking renewables push fossil fuel plants to close',
[8] Energy Post, 21 Oct 2013,
[9] BBC, 18 Sept 2011, 'Siemens to quit nuclear industry',
[10] Guardian, 10 Oct 2013,