by Stephanie Cooke • 21 December 2023
Global investments in nuclear have long been only a fraction of those in renewables, and tripling the amount of existing nuclear capacity would cost trillions of dollars and require massive investments in infrastructure. The problem with throwing nuclear into the mix of potential climate change fixes is that it takes money and attention away from proven and more viable solutions that are urgently needed, such as transforming grids to ensure delivery of renewables, and energy efficiency and storage.
Only 22 countries signed onto the US-lead initiative in contrast to the more than 120 countries that agreed to the more realistic goal of tripling renewables by 2030. Not surprisingly, the signatories included major Western countries such as France, the UK, Canada, Japan and South Korea, all struggling to keep their aging and diminishing nuclear fleets operational while promoting small modular reactors (SMRs) and “advanced” reactors that are even less likely to make an impact on reducing carbon emissions. China and Russia, the two countries with the most dynamic nuclear programs (domestically in the case of China and overseas in the case of Russia), did not sign on. Notably, China signed the renewables pledge.
The Western intergovernmental declaration was echoed in a similar industry pledge to “at least” triple nuclear energy globally by 2050, signed by 120 nuclear industry companies from around the world and pro-nuclear organizations in 25 countries. None of them want to miss out on the prospects of a bonanza in government and export credit agency financing. “By ensuring nuclear has access to climate finance equal to other clean energy sources, governments can enable nuclear capacity deployment at scale worldwide,” their declaration states.
But the smart money is not on nuclear. Globally, renewables (not including hydro) received a record $495 billion in investments in 2022, up 35% from the previous year and 74% of all power generation investments that year. By contrast, only $35 billion was committed to new nuclear power plant construction in that same period, according to the recently released World Nuclear Industry Status Report, or WNISR. (Full disclosure: I wrote the foreword.) Renewables (including hydro) added 348 gigawatts of new capacity in 2022 compared with a net addition of 4.3 GW in operating nuclear power capacity.
Nuclear “doesn’t have the conditions for success to be built and scaled economically in the 21st Century, and wind, water, solar, transmission and storage do,” writes Michael Barnard, chief strategist for TFIE Strategy and editor of The Future is Electric.
The sector’s other vital signs continue to founder — industry CEOs know this, as do leaders of the countries that signed the declaration in Dubai. Nuclear energy’s share of global commercial electricity generation in 2022 dropped to just 9.2% — roughly half its all-time high of 17.5% almost three decades ago in 1996. In France, output from the country’s beleaguered nuclear fleet dropped roughly 120 terawatt hours below the 2005-15 level of around 400 TWh, and for the first time since 1980 the country (whose fleet is the world’s second-largest) became a net electricity importer, according to the WNISR.
Solar and wind power together began outperforming nuclear in 2021, and that trend continued last year with the two generating 28% more electricity than nuclear and contributing 11.7% of global generation. Solar alone produced more power than nuclear in China for the first time in 2022, as it already had in India, and solar and wind combined produced more power than nuclear in the European Union, the report notes.
As renewables continued adding substantial amounts of new capacity to grids across the planet — 348 GW in 2022 — nuclear staggered along, adding only 4.3 GW last year. Even in China, with the world’s fastest-growing nuclear program, the rate of new reactor construction is slowing and renewables are growing much faster.
For world leaders in Dubai, 2050 is a long way out. By signing onto the US initiative, they could opportunistically curry favor with Washington while appearing to be doing something about climate change. However cynical their reasons, their support likely means that substantial sums of money — much of it from taxpayers or ratepayers — will flow toward an effort with little chance of success. Meanwhile, those pocketing the bounty will be lawyers, PR firms, politicians, corporations and utilities perpetuating the fantasy that nuclear energy will make a difference.
Government bureaucracies — especially in the major nuclear countries — will be the biggest beneficiaries. More than half of the US Department of Energy (DOE) annual budget of roughly $50 billion goes toward commercial nuclear energy programs, thus enabling a never-ending cycle of promotion and spending on technologies that were never able to fulfill their promise of revolutionizing energy. Initiatives like the one in Dubai sets up a new round among a club of like-minded nuclear bureaucracies around the world, all increasingly desperate to find new ways to push nuclear.
They are running out of ideas. Large reactors have proved way too expensive to continue building and the SMR and advanced reactor technologies more recently promoted are based on mid-20th century technologies that beyond being too costly, were also considered too dangerous or unworkable to commercialize. DOE has so far watched two showcase SMR projects collapse — one in 2017 and the second, led by Fluor subsidiary NuScale, just a month before COP28. These were based on conventional light-water nuclear technology. The advanced reactor projects are even less likely to succeed.
The idea of tripling nuclear energy surfaced in a DOE report earlier this year. The cost would exceed $5 trillion, assuming 300 new reactors (although the report suggests adding 200 new reactors to the existing fleet of 93, ignoring the fact that most of those reactors will be permanently shut by then).
Recently passed legislation (mainly the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act) contains as much as $150 billion in tax credits and loan guarantees, mainly for keeping aging reactors running twice as long as their original 40-year license periods, and the rest for new reactors, according to Tim Judson of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. The actual amount could be far less if planned new nuclear projects or life extensions fail to materialize. Either way it falls far short of what’s needed for a major nuclear expansion in the US.
If governments are serious about addressing climate change, they need to stop perpetuating the fantasy of a nuclear future, and pursue viable alternatives. They know that.
Stephanie Cooke is the former editor of Nuclear Intelligence Weekly and author of In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.