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Nuclear power: 2018 in review

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

Here are the key nuclear power numbers for calendar year 2018:

Nine power reactor grid connections, seven in China and two in Russia, all of them conventional large PWR reactors.1,2 Those reactors added 10.4 gigawatts (GW) of capacity (compared to 178 GW of new renewable capacity added in 20173 and probably a similar amount in 2018).

Six permanent power reactor shut-downs (3.8 GW)4: Chinshan-1 and 2 in Taiwan, Oyster Creek in the US, Leningrad-1 in Russia, and Ikata-2 and Onagawa-1 in Japan.

Four power reactor construction starts (or five if Hinkley Point C in the UK is included): one each in Turkey, Russia, Bangladesh and South Korea.2

49 reactors under construction ‒ the first time the number has fallen below 50 in a decade, down four from the end of 2017, down 19 since 2013, and the number has decreased for five years in a row.5

2009‒2018 grid connections, construction starts and permanent reactor closures:












10-year total

Reactor grid connections












Construction starts












Permanent shutdowns












Main source: IAEA, PRIS database,

According to the World Nuclear Association, 41 reactors will enter commercial operation in the four years from 2019‒22 (15 in 2019, 11 in 2020, 6 in 2021, and 9 in 2022).6 Then the pre-Fukushima mini-renaissance (38 construction starts from 2008‒2010) slows dramatically with an estimated total of just nine reactor start-ups in the four years from 2023‒26.6 The 49 reactor construction starts in the five years from 2009‒13 more than doubled the 22 construction starts from 2014‒18.7

Currently, nuclear power reflects two contradictory dynamics: the mini-renaissance is in full swing but will subside by the mid-2020s, and the Era of Nuclear Decommissioning8 has begun and will be in sharp focus by the mid-2020s.

Over the past decade ‒ and over the past two decades ‒ the number of operable reactors has increased marginally or decreased marginally depending on whether reactors in long-term outage (almost all of them in Japan) are included in the tally:




31 Dec. 19989



31 Dec. 20089



31 Dec. 2018

WNA (including reactors in long-term outage)10

WNISR (excluding reactors in long-term outage)5







Mycle Schneider, coordinator of the World Nuclear Industry Status Reports, notes that the total of 417 reactors (excluding reactors in long-term outage) is up 12 from a year ago (including both reactor grid-connections and restarts of some reactors in long-term outage) but still below pre-Fukushima levels and 21 reactors lower than the historic peak of 438 in 2002.5

No country generated nuclear power for the first time in 2018 while one country ‒ Turkey ‒ began construction of a power reactor for the first time. Four newcomer countries are building reactors ‒ Bangladesh, Belarus, Turkey and the UAE. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report noted in September 2018 that new-build plans had recently been cancelled in Jordan, Malaysia and the US or postponed in Argentina, Indonesia, and Kazakhstan.11 In November 2018, State Secretary for Energy José Dominguez announced that Spain's seven operable reactors will be permanently shut down when they reach their 40-year lifespan and thus Spain will be nuclear free by 2030.12

Aging reactor fleet

The industry faces severe problems, not least the aging of the global reactor fleet. The average age of the fleet continues to rise and reached 30 years in mid-2018 according to the latest World Nuclear Industry Status Report.11

There will likely be an average of 8-11 permanent reactor shut-downs annually over the next few decades:

  • The International Energy Agency expects a "wave of retirements of ageing nuclear reactors" and an "unprecedented rate of decommissioning" ‒ almost 200 reactor shut-downs between 2014 and 2040.13
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) anticipates 320 GW of retirements from 2017 to 2050.14
  • Another IAEA report estimates up to 139 GW of permanent shut-downs from 2018‒2030 and up to 186 GW of further shut-downs from 2030-2050.15
  • The reference scenario in the 2017 edition of the World Nuclear Association's Nuclear Fuel Report has 140 reactors closing by 2035.16
  • A 2017 Nuclear Energy Insider article estimates up to 200 permanent shut-downs over the next two decades.17

So an average of 8‒11 construction starts and grid connections will be required to maintain current nuclear output. Yet construction starts have averaged just 4.5 over the past five years.

Grim prospects

For the first time in many years, perhaps ever, the IAEA was up-front about the grim prospects for nuclear power in a September 2018 report.18 The IAEA said:19

"Nuclear power's electricity generating capacity risks shrinking in the coming decades as ageing reactors are retired and the industry struggles with reduced competitiveness … Over the short term, the low price of natural gas, the impact of renewable energy sources on electricity prices, and national nuclear policies in several countries following the accident at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011 are expected to continue weighing on nuclear power's growth prospects ... In addition, the nuclear power industry faces increased construction times and costs due to heightened safety requirements, challenges in deploying advanced technologies and other factors."

The IAEA's low and high projections for global nuclear power capacity in 2030 are both 36% lower than the same projections in 2010, the year before the Fukushima disaster.20

Former World Nuclear Association executive Steve Kidd noted in an August 2018 article:21

"The current upward spike in reactor commissioning certainly looks impressive (at least compared with the recent past) but there are few signs that here will be a further uplift in the 2020s. What we see today is largely the result of rapid growth in the Chinese industry, which has now seemingly ended. ... In Asia, the sharp downturn in Chinese interest in nuclear is unlikely to be replaced by India or by a combination of the other populous counties there. It is clear that without a strong lead from the established nuclear countries, a worldwide uplift in reactor construction is not going to happen."

And therein lies a fundamental problem for the nuclear industry: it is in a frightful mess11 in the three countries that accounted for 56% of global nuclear capacity just before the Fukushima disaster: the US, France and Japan.22


2018 was a "positive year for nuclear power" according to the World Nuclear Association.1 And indeed it was ‒ compared to 2017, which was one of the industry's worst-ever years.8 The Association cited nuclear power's net gain in 2018 (9 grid connections, 6 permanent shut-downs).

Bright New World, an Australian pro-nuclear lobby group (that accepts secret corporate donations) listed these gains in 2018:23

1. Taiwanese voters voiced support for overturning legislation to eliminate nuclear power.

2. Poland announced plans for a 6‒9 GW nuclear sector.

3. China connected the world's first AP1000 and EPR reactors to the electrical grid.

4. Some progress with Generation IV R&D projects (Terrestrial Energy, NuScale, Moltex), and the passing of the US Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act which aims to speed up the development of advanced reactors.

Those are modest and pyrrhic wins. To take each in turn:

1. Taiwan's government remains committed to phasing out nuclear power although the 2025 deadline has been abandoned following a referendum in November 2018.24

2. Poland might join the club of countries producing nuclear power ‒ or it might not. Currently it is a member of a group of countries that failed to complete partially-built power reactors and have never generated nuclear power, along with Austria, Cuba, the Philippines, and North Korea.25

3. China's nuclear power program has stalled ‒ the country has not opened any new construction site for a commercial reactor since December 2016.1

4. Generation IV fantasies are as fantastical as ever. David Elliot ‒ author of the 2017 book Nuclear Power: Past, Present and Future ‒ notes that many Generation IV concepts "are in fact old ideas that were looked at in the early days and mostly abandoned. There were certainly problems with some of these early experimental reactors, some of them quite dramatic."26

One example of the gap between Generation IV rhetoric and reality was Transatomic Power's decision to give up on its molten salt reactor R&D project in the US in September 201827 ‒ just weeks before the public release of the New Fire propaganda film that heavily promotes the young entrepreneurs who founded Transatomic.28 The company tried but failed to raise a modest US$15 million for the next phase of its R&D project.

An article by four current and former researchers from Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Engineering and Public Policy, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in July 2018, argues that no US advanced reactor design will be commercialized before mid-century. Further, the authors systematically investigated how a domestic market could develop to support a small modular reactor industry in the US over the next few decades ‒ including using them to back up wind and solar, desalinate water, produce heat for industrial processes, or serve military bases ‒ and were unable to make a convincing case.29

Long-time energy journalist Kennedy Maize recently argued in POWER magazine that Generation IV R&D projects are "longshots" and that the "highest profile of the LWR apostates is TerraPower ... backed by Microsoft founder and multi-billionaire Bill Gates. Founded in 2006, TerraPower is working on a liquid-sodium-cooled breeder-burner machine that can run on uranium waste, while it generates power and plutonium, with the plutonium used to generate more power, all in a continuous process."30 TerraPower recently abandoned its plan for a prototype reactor in China due to new restrictions placed on nuclear trade with China by the Trump administration.31

Bright New World might have cited some other pyrrhic wins in 2018. The French government abandoned previous plans to reduce nuclear power to 50% of total electricity generation by 2035 ... but still plans to shut 14 reactors by 2035.32 The Vogtle project in the US state of Georgia came close to being abandoned but it was rescued despite monumental cost overruns (the estimate for two AP1000 reactors has risen from US$14 billion to US$28 billion) and multi-year delays.33


1. World Nuclear Association, 4 Jan 2019, Weekly Digest,

2. IAEA, PRIS database,

3. REN21, June 2018, 'Renewables 2018 Global Status Report',

4. World Nuclear Association, 4 Jan 2019, Weekly Digest,

5. Mycle Schneider, 3 Jan 2019, 'World Nuclear Industry Status as of 1 January 2019',

6. World Nuclear Association, January 2019, 'Plans For New Reactors Worldwide',

7. IAEA, 2018, 'Nuclear Power Reactors in the World',

8. Nuclear Monitor #856, 29 Jan 2018, '2017 in Review: Nuclear Power',

9. IAEA, 'Nuclear Power Capacity Trend',

10. World Nuclear Association, 'World Nuclear Power Reactors & Uranium Requirements',

11. Mycle Schneider, Antony Froggatt et al., Sept 2018, 'The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2018',

12. Sam Morgan, 15 Nov 2018, 'Spain to nix nuclear and coal power by 2030',
13. International Energy Agency, 2014, 'World Energy Outlook 2014 Factsheet',

14. International Atomic Energy Agency, 28 July 2017, 'International Status and Prospects for Nuclear Power 2017: Report by the Director General',

15. International Atomic Energy Agency, 2018, 'Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050: 2018 Edition',

16. World Nuclear Association, 2017, 'The Nuclear Fuel Report',

17. Karen Thomas, 25 Jan 2017, 'OECD expands decommissioning cost benchmarks ahead of closure surge',

18. International Atomic Energy Agency, 'Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050: 2018 Edition',

19. IAEA, 10 Sept 2018, 'New IAEA Energy Projections See Possible Shrinking Role for Nuclear Power',

20. Nuclear Monitor #866, 24 Sept 2018, 'New IAEA report sees "possible shrinking role" for nuclear power',

21. Steve Kidd, 29 Nov 2018, 'Nuclear power – is there another blueprint?',

22. World Nuclear Association, Jan 2011, 'World Nuclear Power Reactors & Uranium Requirements Archive',

23. Ben Heard, 6 Jan 2019, 'What way forward in 2019? Reflections from Bright New World founder Ben Heard',

24. Nuclear Monitor #87, 19 Dec 2018, 'Taiwan's goal to become nuclear free remains unchanged: President Tsai',


26. David Elliott, 25 May 2017, 'Back to the future: old nukes for new', Nuclear Monitor #844,

27. Nuclear Monitor #867, 15 Oct 2018, 'Transatomic Gen IV startup shuts down',

28. Nuclear Monitor #866, 24 Sept 2018, 'Film review: 'The New Fire' and the old Gen IV rhetoric',

29. M. Granger Morgan, Ahmed Abdulla, Michael J. Ford, and Michael Rath, July 2018 'US nuclear power: The vanishing low-carbon wedge', Proceedings of the National Academy of Science,

Media release, 2 July 2018, 'The vanishing nuclear industry',

30. Kennedy Maize, 1 Jan 2019, 'Debate Continues: Can New Technology Save Nuclear Power?',

31. Reuters, 2 Jan 2019, 'Bill Gates' nuclear venture hits snag amid U.S. restrictions on China deals: WSJ',

32. Nuclear Monitor #870, 19 Dec 2018, 'French President announces energy roadmap',

33. Nuclear Monitor #867, 15 Oct 2018, 'Vogtle's reprieve: snatching defeat from the jaws of defeat',