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Business Spectator (Australia): U-turn to nowhere: Nuclear’s dire outlook

Wednesday 28 January 2015

U-turn to nowhere: Nuclear’s dire outlook

Business Spectator, 27 January 2015

Jim Green

Global nuclear power capacity increased slightly in 2014 according to the World Nuclear Association:

– Five new reactors (4.76 gigawatts) began supplying electricity and three were permanently shut down.

– 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.

– Construction started on just three reactors during 2014. A total of 70 reactors (74 GW) are under construction.

Thus a long-standing pattern of stagnation continues. Global nuclear capacity grew by 10.6% in the two decades from 1995-2014, and just 2.6% in the decade from 2005-2014.

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."

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. The figure is implausible.

Nuclear Energy Insider was 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."

Steve Kidd is still more downbeat: "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 Report ... 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."

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."

4 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 reactors 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.

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 reactors under construction and 31 planned. A pattern of slow growth is likely. As for Russia’s ambitious nuclear export program, 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".

South Korea has 23 operating reactors, five under construction and eight planned. Earlier plans for rapid nuclear expansion in South Korea have been derailed by the Fukushima disaster, a major scandal over forged safety documents, and a hacking attack on Korea Hydro’s computer network.

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. 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."

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 US-origin reactors, the accident-liability issue, and grass-roots opposition to the planned multi-reactor complexes." In addition, unresolved disagreements regarding safeguards and non-proliferation assurances are delaying US and European investment in India’s nuclear program.

Saudi Arabia last year announced plans to build 16 reactors by 2032. Already, the timeline has been pushed back from 2032 to 2040. As with any country embarking on a nuclear power program for the first time, Saudi Arabia faces daunting logistical and workforce issues. 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.

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. 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 lack of finance. Thus the latest plan for 9.6 GW of new nuclear capacity in South Africa is being treated with scepticism. Academic Professor 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."

Pro-nuclear commentator Dan Yurman is also sceptical: "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."

Nuclear negawatts

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. 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. In January 2014, the European Commission forecast that EU nuclear generating capacity of 131 GW in 2010 will decline to 97 GW in 2025.

The United States has 99 operable reactors. Five reactors are under construction, "with little prospect for more" according to Decisions to shut down just as many reactors have been taken in the past few years, with the shut down of Vermont Yankee on December 29 the latest of these closures. 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.

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.

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. 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.

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 next few 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.

Problems with ageing reactors include:

– an 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 outages);

– costly refurbishments;

– debates over appropriate safety standards for reactors designed decades ago; and

– the uncertainties and 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 year, and emphasised the point by breaking into six ageing European nuclear plants on March 5, 2014.

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."

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."

The World Energy Outlook 2014 report estimates the cost of decommissioning reactors to be more than $US100 billion 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.

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 $US1.24 billion to decommission Vermont Yankee, but the company’s decommissioning trust fund for the plant − $US670 million − is barely half that amount.

Michael Mariotte, president of the US Nuclear Information and 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."

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.

Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth, Australia.


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