Nuclear energy demand is hemmed in by natural gas, solar and wind.
By Alan Neuhauser July 29, 2014 | 12:30 p.m. EDT
Nuclear power’s share of global energy production has fallen to its lowest level in 30 years, hemmed in by bargain-basement natural gas prices, cheaper renewable energy prices and ongoing fears three years after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, a new study finds.
“The nuclear industry’s product is like a dinosaur in a flower garden,” says industry consultant Mycle Schneider, lead author and coordinator of “The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2014."
“It’s big, much too big, and it’s slow, and it’s just not appropriate in that landscape,” he says.
Nuclear power made up just 10.8 percent of power generation last year, down from a historic peak of 17.6 percent in 1996. There are also 50 fewer operating reactors compared to an industry high in 2002, and the average reactor is now 28.5 years old.
“The world’s reactor fleet is aging continuously because there’s not enough new build,” says Schneider. “I don’t know if you remember the car you drove 30 years ago, but the technology world was a different one.”
This has major implications for nuclear operators. While nuclear plants have always been costly to build, they benefited from relatively cheap operating costs once they went online. Older plants, though, are far costlier to maintain, and there simply isn’t enough current incentive to build a number of new ones. While China may be building a staggering 28 nuclear plants, it’s still drawing more of its power from wind alone.
“The nuclear industry, their product is basically a 1,000-megawatt plant, more or less, that takes 10 years to build,” Schneider says. “In 10 years, this energy world is going to be a radically different one. To propose today that model in a landscape which is small-scale, decentralized, super-efficient defies logic.”
The fall of nuclear also grows out of a wider shift in the energy market: decentralization, brought about by cheaper and more efficient wind and solar.
“The good old utility model is basically gone,” Schneider says. “The nuclear industry is not capable to build enough to maintain the status quo. So it’s only a matter of time. It’s been a declining situation for the past 20 years, and it will continue to decline. It’s not whether, it’s how fast.”