The nuclear industry today: declining, but not (yet) dying…

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From The Ecologist

The World Nuclear Industry Status Report provides an account of an industry in decline, writes Jonathon Porritt – with rising operating costs and an ever-shrinking share of world energy production, while the sector loses the race for investment and new generating capacity to fast growing renewable energy technologies.

The 388 operating reactors are 50 fewer than the peak in 2002, while the total installed capacity peaked in 2010 at 367 GW before declining to the current level, which is comparable to levels last seen two decades ago.

Every year, the World Nuclear Industry Status Report reminds me why those in the Green movement who think nuclear has a major role to play in securing a low-carbon world are completely, dangerously off their collective trollies.

The Status Report is not an anti-nuclear polemic. Over the years, its authors (Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt) have assiduously built its reputation for dispassionate reporting on the state of the industry, presented as objectively and non-judgmentally as possible.

It uses a wide range of sources (academic, industry, avowedly pro-nuclear and avowedly anti-nuclear) to maintain longitudinal datasets going back over decades to tell it as it is – in contrast to all the froth of partisan propaganda. On both sides.

Let me just give you a taste from the newly-published 2014 Report:

Overview

“The nuclear share of the world’s power generation declined steadily from an historic peak of 17.6% in 1996 to 10.8% in 2013. Nuclear power’s share of global commercial primary energy production declined from the 2012 low of 4.5%, a level last seen in 1984, to a new low of 4.4%.”

“Twenty-eight years after the Chernobyl disaster, none of the next generation reactors (or so-called Generation III or III+) has entered service, with construction projects in Finland and France many years behind schedule.”

Construction

“As of July 2014, 67 reactors were under construction (one more than in July 2013), with a total capacity of 64GW. The average building time of the units under construction stands at seven years. However:

  • At least 49 of the 67 reactors have encountered construction delays, most of them significant (several months to several years). For the first time, major delays – several months to over two years – have been admitted on three-quarters (21 out of 28) of the projects in China.
  • Eight reactors have been listed as ‘under construction’ for more than 20 years, another for 12 years.
  • Two-thirds (43) of the units under construction are located in three countries: China, India and Russia.”


Certification delays

“The certification of new reactor designs encounters continuous obstacles. In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) first delayed to 2015 the certification of the Franco-German-designed EP, and no longer projects any completion date for the review.

“The NRC rejected the licence application for the South Korean APR 1400 due to lack of information in key areas. Only the Westinghouse AP 1000 has received full generic design approval in the US.

“There is no projected completion date for the renewal of certification for the two versions of the ABWR (GE-Hitachi and Toshiba).”

Operating cost increases

“In some countries (including France, Germany, the US and Sweden), historically low inflation-adjusted operating costs – especially for major repairs – have escalated so rapidly that the average reactor’s operating cost is barely below, or even exceeds, the normal band of wholesale power prices.”

The Report is particularly strong on comparing the differences between nuclear power and renewable energy deployment.

“Compared to 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change was signed, there has been an additional 616 TWh per year of windpower produced, and 124 TWh of solar photovoltaics, outpacing nuclear with just 114 TWh.

In 2013, growth rates for generation from wind power above 20% were seen in North America, Europe and Eurasia, and Asia Pacific, with the two largest markets in the US (19%) and China (38%).

In the world of photovoltaics, North America saw a more than doubling of power generation, Asia Pacific a 75% increase.”

Installed capacity

“Globally, since 2000, the annual growth rates for wind power have averaged 25%, and for solar voltaics 43%. This has resulted, in 2013 alone, in 32 GW of wind and 37 GW of solar being added. Nuclear generating capacity declined by 19 GW compared to the 2000 level.”

China

“By the end of 2013, China had a total of 91 GW of operating windpower capacity. China’s 18 GW of installed solar capacity for the first time exceeded operating nuclear capacity.

China added a new world record of at least 12 GW of solar in just one year (versus 3 GW of nuclear), overtaking Germany’s previous 7.6 GW record and exceeding cumulative US additions since it invented photovoltaics in the 1950s.

“China now aims at 40 GW of solar, and will probably exceed the 100 GW wind power target for 2015.”

Nuclear’s installed capacity at the level of decades ago

Not surprisingly, this is the Report’s principal conclusion:

“The nuclear industry is in decline: the 388 operating reactors are 50 fewer than the peak in 2002, while the total installed capacity peaked in 2010 at 367 GW before declining to the current level, which is comparable to levels last seen two decades ago. Annual nuclear electricity generation reached a maximum of 2,660 TW hours in 2006, and dropped to 2,359 TW hours in 2013.”

This is all just the top line. The Report digs down deep into the situation in Japan (as troubling as ever, whatever the self-justifying protestations of George Monbiot – the man who, mystifyingly, ‘fell in love’ with nuclear power because of Fukushima – and others), in China, at Hinkley Point, and in the context of a whole range of“potential newcomer countries”.

As I worked my way through all this, page by page, it’s all but impossible for me to understand how any thoughtful, intelligent environmentalist could possibly suppose either that

  • a so-called nuclear renaissance is ever going to happen; or
  • even in the improbable circumstances that it did, how it could possibly deliver the kind of safe, secure, low-carbon energy the world needs so desperately.

And the longer they hang on to these fantasies, the more damage they do, sowing confusion and doubt, distracting attention from the business of driving forward with the renewables-efficiency-storage alternative.

All I can think is that these people never actually read up on the state of play in the nuclear industry. They should try it: it’s illuminating.
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