Due to increasing costs of production, a slowed demand for electricity, and fresh memories of disaster in Japan, production of nuclear power fell in 2011, according to the latest Vital Signs Online (VSO) report from the Worldwatch Institute. Despite reaching record levels the previous year, global installed nuclear capacity—-the potential power generation from all existing plants—-declined to 366.5 GW in 2011, from 375.5 GW at the end of 2010.
Not surprisingly, the drop in installed capacity corresponds with a decline in global consumption of nuclear energy. Nuclear’s share of world commercial primary energy usage fell to about 5% in 2010, having peaked at about 6% in 2001 and 2002. Only four countries—-the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom—-increased their share of nuclear power by over one percentage point between 2009 and 2010.
Much of the decline in installed capacity is the result of halted reactor construction around the world. Although construction on 16 new reactors began in 2010—-the highest number in over two decades—-that number fell to just two in 2011, with India and Pakistan each starting construction on a plant. In addition to this dramatically slowed rate of construction, the first 10 months of 2011 saw the closing of 13 nuclear reactors, reducing the total number of reactors in operation around the world from 441 at the beginning of the year to 433.
“It’s too early to conclude that nuclear energy is beginning a long-term decline, but these numbers can hardly encourage the industry,” said Worldwatch President Robert Engelman. “The high cost of nuclear electricity generation and the widespread public perceptions that it poses unacceptable safety risks make it unlikely this form of power will help slow human-caused climate change or offer an attractive alternative to rising fossil-fuel prices any time soon.”
China is an exception to the global slump in nuclear electricity generation, in terms of both the number of plants being built and installment capacity levels. The country accounted for 10 of the 16 reactor construction starts in 2010, and that year it initiated the installment of nearly 10 GW of capacity, representing 62% of capacity construction worldwide. China currently is home to 27 reactors and has some 27 GW of capacity under construction. “Overall, the likelihood of China significantly reducing its aggressive growth in nuclear generation remains low as the country seeks to meet its rapidly growing energy demand and ambitious carbon dioxide reduction targets,”says Worldwatch MAP Fellow Matt Lucky, author of the VSO report.
The United States, too, does not appear to be abandoning nuclear power just yet. In 2010, the Obama administration approved $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for construction of nuclear reactors. In February of 2011, the administration’s budget proposal upped that amount by an additional $36 billion.
The current global decline in installed nuclear power capacity stands in stark contrast to nuclear’s surge in popularity throughout the 2000s. Although many factors are behind the decline, it is largely the result of high costs, slowed electricity demand, and lower natural gas prices in recent months. The reactor meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima plant seven months ago also likely added to the severity of the decline. Only 10 of Japan’s 54 reactors are currently connected to the grid, China froze construction on 25 reactors immediately after the Fukushima explosions, and both Germany and Switzerland announced plans to phase out nuclear power following the disaster.
“Whereas renewable-energy sources are growing at rates of up to 70% and more on an annual basis, nuclear energy is the only major energy technology experiencing negative growth,” says Alexander Ochs, Director of Worldwatch’s Climate and Energy program. “Not only is nuclear too risky from a health and security point of view, it’s also just too expensive.”
Although nuclear power remains an important energy source for many countries, including Russia and France, it is likely that its prominence will continue to decrease. To maintain current generation levels, the world would need to install an additional 18 GW by 2015 and another 175 GW by 2025. In the aftermath of Fukushima and in the context of a fragile global economy, an increase that sharp is improbable.
Further highlights from the report:
- Together, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and South Korea have contributed about 5 GW of new installed capacity since the beginning of 2010. During this same period, nearly 11.5 GW of installed capacity has been shut down in France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
- Germany alone has taken about 8 GW of installed nuclear capacity offline this year.
- Currently, 65 reactors are under construction around the world. However, 20 of these have been under construction for more than 20 years.
- Construction on the first nuclear power plant to be built in France in 15 years has been delayed until 2016, and its projected cost has grown from €3.3 to 6 billion (About $4.4 to $8 billion).
- The average age of decommissioned reactors worldwide has risen to 23 years.
- In 2009, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission received 26 nuclear reactor permit applications, but only four of those sites have plans for construction.
Filed Under: Construction, News, Policy
But much of the supposed “high cost” of building nuclear capacity is really the cost of capital delayed by anti-nuclear activism, enabled by well-honed skills at tying up projects in the courts. This was particularly so before the so-called “combined license” in the US. It used to be that the NRC required one licence to build, and a separate license to *operate*, a nuclear plant.
The NIMBYs have learned from their years of fighting nuclear power, and wind projects can be just as controversial. For a great example, consider Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound. It seemed like a dream site, but a lot of very wealthy owners of multi-million dollar beachfront homes didn’t like the idea of seeing wind turbines intead of whales, and lost their green enthusiasm in a hurry.
A European study called ExternE analyzed the total life-cycle risks of all significant forms of electric generation: fossil fuel, hydro, nuclear, renewables. “Total life cycle” means risk from plant construction and maintenance, mining/transporting the fuel if any, emissions from normal operation, accidents, and decommissioning, normalized as expected deaths per terawatt-hour generated.
They found that nuclear power was comparable to renewables, 35x safer than coal power in the US, and 400x safer than worldwide coal (mostly due to Chinese plants with poor emission controls and riskier mining practices).
Last spring for Earth Day, in the wake of Fukushima, I gave a talk at my kids’ school titled “A Rational Environmentalist’s Guide to Nuclear Power”. A greatly expanded version can be found here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/54904454