Nuclear power is in crisis ‒ as even the most strident nuclear enthusiasts acknowledge ‒ and it is likely that a new era is fast emerging, writes Jim Green, editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter. After a growth spurt from the 1960s to the ’90s, then 20 years of stagnation, the Era of Nuclear Decommissioning is upon us. Article courtesy Nuclear Monitor.
Last year was supposed to be a good year for nuclear power ‒ the peak of a mini-renaissance resulting from a large number of reactor construction starts in the three years before the Fukushima disaster. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) anticipated 19 reactor grid connections (start-ups) in 2017 but in fact there were only four start-ups (Chasnupp-4 in Pakistan; Fuqing-4, Yangjiang-4 and Tianwan-3 in China).
The four start-ups were outnumbered by five permanent shut-downs (Kori-1 in South Korea; Oskashamn-1 in Sweden; Gundremmingen-B in Germany; Ohi 1 and 2 in Japan).
The WNA’s estimate for reactor start-ups in 2017 was hopelessly wrong but, for what it’s worth, here are the Association’s projections for start-ups in the coming years:
Thus ‒ notwithstanding the low number of start-ups in 2017 ‒ the mini-renaissance that gathered steam in the three years before the Fukushima disaster probably has two or three years to run. Beyond that, it’s near-impossible to see start-ups outpacing closures.
New nuclear capacity of 3.3 gigawatts (GW) in 2017 was outweighed by lost capacity of 4.6 GW. Over the past 20 years, there has been modest growth (12.6%, 44 GW) in global nuclear power capacity if reactors currently in long-term outage are included. However, including those reactors ‒ in particular idle reactors in Japan, many of which will never restart ‒ in the count of ‘operable’ or ‘operational’ or ‘operating’ reactors is, as former WNA executive Steve Kidd states, “misleading” and “clearly ridiculous”.
There would need to be an average of 10 reactor start-ups (10 GW) per year just to maintain current capacity. The industry will have to run hard just to stand still
The World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) excludes reactors in long-term outage ‒ defined as reactors that produced zero power in the previous calendar year and in the first half of the current calendar year ‒ from its count of operating reactors. Thirty-six reactors are currently in long-term outage, 31 of them in Japan.
Excluding reactors in long-term outage, the number of reactors has declined by 29 over the past 20 years, while capacity has grown by a negligible 1.4% (5 GW). Over the past decade, the reactor count is down by 34 and capacity is down by 9.5% (19 GW).
The industry faces severe problems, not least the ageing of the global reactor fleet. The average age of the reactor fleet continues to rise, and by mid-2017 stood at 29.3 years; over half have operated for 31 years or more.
The International Energy Agency expects a “wave of retirements of ageing nuclear reactors” and an “unprecedented rate of decommissioning” ‒ almost 200 reactor shut-downs between 2014 and 2040. The International Atomic Energy Agency anticipates 320 GW of retirements by 2050 ‒ in other words, there would need to be an average of 10 reactor start-ups (10 GW) per year just to maintain current capacity. The industry will have to run hard just to stand still.
Renewables (24.5% of global generation) generate more than twice as much electricity as nuclear power (<10.5%) and the gap is growing rapidly
Assuming the mini-renaissance doesn’t continue to flop (as it did in 2017), an average of 10 or so start-ups from 2015‒2020 is possible (there were 24 start-ups from 2015‒17). But to maintain that level, the number of construction starts would need to increase sharply and there is no likelihood of that eventuating ‒ there have only been seven construction starts in the past two years combined.
The number of reactors under construction is slowly dropping. Using WNA figures, 71 reactors were under construction in January 2014 compared to 58 in January 2018. According to WNISR figures, the number is down from 67 to 52 over the same period. That trend seems certain to continue because of a sharp drop in reactor construction starts: 38 from 2008‒2010 compared to 39 in the seven years from 2011‒2017.
Nuclear power accounted for 10.5% of global electricity generation in 2016 (presumably a little less now), well down from the historic peak of 17.5% in 1996.
Renewables (24.5% of global generation) generate more than twice as much electricity as nuclear power (<10.5%) and the gap is growing rapidly. The International Energy Agency predicts renewable energy capacity growth of 43% (920 GW) from 2017 to 2022. Overall, the share of renewables in power generation will reach 30% in 2022 according to the IEA. By then, nuclear’s share will be around 10% and renewables will be out-generating nuclear by a factor of three.
A disastrous year for the nuclear industry
Last year was “all in all a disastrous year” for the nuclear power industry according to Energy Post Weekly editor Karel Beckman. Nuclear lobbyists issued any number of warnings about nuclear power’s “rapidly accelerating crisis“, a “crisis that threatens the death of nuclear energy in the West“, “the crisis that the nuclear industry is presently facing in developed countries“, the “ashes of today’s dying industry”, and noting that “the industry is on life support in the United States and other developed economies“.
Lobbyists engaged each other in heated arguments over possible solutions to nuclear power’s crisis ‒ in a nutshell, some favour industry consolidation while others think innovation is essential, all of them think that taxpayer subsidies need to be massively increased, and none of them are interested in the tedious work of building public support by strengthening nuclear safety and regulatory standards, strengthening the safeguards system, etc.
One indication of the industry’s desperation has been the recent willingness of industry bodies (such as the US Nuclear Energy Institute) and supporters (such as former US energy secretary Ernest Moniz) to openly acknowledge the connections between nuclear power and weapons, and using those connections as an argument for increased taxpayer subsidies for nuclear power and the broader ‘civil’ nuclear fuel cycle. The power/weapons connections are also evident with Saudi Arabia’s plan to introduce nuclear power and the regime’s pursuit of a weapons capability.
There were no commercial reactor construction starts in China in 2017 (though work began on one demonstration fast neutron reactor) and only two in 2016
The biggest disaster for the nuclear industry in 2017 was the bankruptcy filing of Westinghouse ‒ which also came close to bankrupting its parent company Toshiba ‒ and the decision to abandon two partially-built reactors in South Carolina after the expenditure of at least US$9 billion. As of January 2018, both Westinghouse and Toshiba are still undergoing slow and painful restructuring processes, and both companies are firmly committed to exiting the reactor construction business (but not the nuclear industry altogether).
Another alarming development for the nuclear industry was the slow-down in China. China Nuclear Engineering Corp, the country’s leading nuclear construction firm, noted in early 2017 that the “Chinese nuclear industry has stepped into a declining cycle” because the “State Council approved very few new-build projects in the past years”.
There were no commercial reactor construction starts in China in 2017 (though work began on one demonstration fast neutron reactor) and only two in 2016. The pace will pick up but it seems less and less likely that growth in China will make up for the decline in the rest of the world.
The Era of Nuclear Decommissioning will be characterised by escalating battles (and escalating sticker shock) over lifespan extensions, decommissioning and nuclear waste management
The legislated plan to reduce France’s reliance on nuclear from 75% of electricity generation to 50% by 2025 seems unlikely to be realised but the government is resolved to steadily reduce reliance on nuclear in favour of renewables. French environment minister Nicolas Hulot said in November 2017 that the 50% figure will be reached between 2030 and 2035. France’s nuclear industry is in its “worst situation ever”, a former EDF director said in November 2016, and the situation has worsened since then.
There were plenty of other serious problems for nuclear power around the world in 2017:
- Swiss voters supported a nuclear phase-out referendum.
- South Korea’s new government will halt plans to build new nuclear power plants (though construction of two partially-built reactors will proceed, and South Korea will still bid for reactor projects overseas).
- Taiwan’s Cabinet reiterated the government’s resolve to phase out nuclear power by 2025 though a long battle
- Japan’s nuclear industry has been decimated ‒ just five reactors are operating (less than one-tenth of the pre-Fukushima fleet) and 14 reactors have been permanently shut-down since the Fukushima disaster (including the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors).
- India’s nuclear industry keeps promising the world and delivering very little ‒ nuclear capacity is just 6.2 GW. In May 2017, India’s Cabinet approved a plan to build 10 indigenous pressurised heavy water reactors, but most have been in the pipeline for years and it’s anyone’s guess how many (if any) will actually be built.
- The UK’s nuclear power program faces “something of a crisis” according to an industry lobbyist. The reactor fleet is ageing but only two new reactors are under construction. The estimated cost of the two Hinkley Point reactors, including finance, is A$40 billion.
- All of Germany’s reactors will be closed by the end of 2022 and all of Belgium’s will be closed by the end of 2025.
- Russia’s Rosatom began construction of the first nuclear power reactor in Bangladesh, signed agreements to build Egypt’s first power reactors, and is set to begin work on Turkey’s first reactors ‒ but Rosatom deputy general director Vyacheslav Pershukov said in June 2017 that the possibilities for building new large reactors abroad are almost exhausted. He said Rosatom expects to be able to find customers for new reactors until 2020‒2025 but “it will be hard to continue.”
- A High Court judgement in South Africa in April 2017 ruled that much of the country’s nuclear new-build program is without legal foundation, and there is little likelihood that the program will be revived given that it is shrouded in corruption scandals and President Jacob Zuma’s hold on power is weakening.
The only nuclear industry that is booming is decommissioning ‒ the World Nuclear Association anticipates US$111 billion worth of decommissioning projects to 2035.
The Era of Nuclear Decommissioning
The ageing of the global reactor fleet isn’t yet a crisis for the industry, but it is heading that way. In many countries with nuclear power, the prospects for new reactors are dim and rear-guard battles are being fought to extend the lifespans of ageing reactors that are approaching or past their design date.
Perhaps the best characterisation of the global nuclear industry is that a new era is approaching ‒ the Era of Nuclear Decommissioning ‒ following on from its growth spurt from the 1960s to the ’90s then 20 years of stagnation.
The Era of Nuclear Decommissioning will entail:
- A slow decline in the number of operating reactors.
- An increasingly unreliable and accident-prone reactor fleet as ageing sets in.
- Countless battles over lifespan extensions for ageing reactors.
- An internationalisation of anti-nuclear opposition as neighbouring countries object to the continued operation of ageing reactors (international opposition to Belgium’s ageing reactors is a case in point ‒ and there are numerous other examples).
- Battles over and problems with decommissioning projects (e.g. the UK government’s £100+ million settlement over a botched decommissioning tendering process).
- Battles over taxpayer bailout proposals for companies and utilities that haven’t set aside adequate funds for decommissioning and nuclear waste management and disposal. (According to Nuclear Energy Insider, European nuclear utilities face “significant and urgent challenges” with over a third of the continent’s nuclear plants to be shut down by 2025, and utilities facing a €118 billion shortfall in decommissioning and waste management funds.)
- Battles over proposals to impose nuclear waste repositories and stores on unwilling or divided communities.
The Era of Nuclear Decommissioning will be characterised by escalating battles (and escalating sticker shock) over lifespan extensions, decommissioning and nuclear waste management. In those circumstances, it will become even more difficult than it currently is for the industry to pursue new reactor projects. A feedback loop could take hold and then the nuclear industry will be well and truly in crisis ‒ if it isn’t already.
Dr Jim Green is the editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter, where a longer version of this article was originally published.
“It is dead Jim!”
Are Hansen says
Good news indeed.
But we still have considerably problems: there is already 150 – 200 000 tons of high and medium radioactive waste. Almost all of that is in temporary storage. We need to do something about that. There are no proven solutions, as nothing man made can be guaranteed to last the required 100.000 years without leaking. Still, we can’t just have it laying around in unsafe storage, among other things it is a huge safety risk for terrorism
Nigel West says
No, it’s not good news for the climate, only for fearful antis.
In the UK over half the waste is from military work. The first generation UK civil reactors produced far greater volumes of waste no in storage partly because of reprocessing. New nuclear plants currently being built will generate far less high level waste.
Finland is commissioning a permanent deep geological repository for their spent fuel. I am sure German ingenuity could come up with a long term storage solution too, possible an EU wide solution. However, perhaps antis prefer to perpetuate the ‘no solution to high level waste’ story?
Terrorists go for soft targets, not heavily fortified and guarded storage facilities.
Jan Haverkamp says
1. Less does not mean that the problem is going away. It is also for the current generation reactors a problem without solution, only with very expensive and technically complicated risk reduction.
2. Finland is not commissioning, it is constructing, but has not operation license yet (it has a construction license). The operation license is among a host of other technical issues also depending on the performance of the Swedish SKB container to be used. That faces currently a few very large technical challenges. And even if Onkalo goes in operation, that may be (or not) an acceptable form of risk reduction for the current Finnish high level waste, but is not for all other (Finish and global). This is not an easy problem. Acting if it is, is ostrich policy with quite some risk for future generations – near and far in time.
3. Terrorists (and nation states) go for symbolic targets. That is what makes the nuclear fuel chain, including reactors, such dangerous objects. And the higher the political instability, the less relevant the “fortification” you mention will be. I, for one, refuse to make bets on political stability in the coming 150 years…
Mike Parr says
why not go the fast breeder route?
Jim Green says
Tried and failed https://energypost.eu/slow-death-fast-reactors/
Harry Degenaar says
Jim Green – Tell the Russian’s and Chinese on this failure. They are full steam moving ahead with the development of their Fast Neutron Breeder Reactors.
On another note: China’s Yangjiang Massive “BaseLoad” 6600 MWe NPP, has seen Unit 5 complete the commissioning tests, meeting the conditions for entering commercial operation.
The Yangjiang NPP has 4 Units operational. Four of them are of the Chinese Gen-II CPR-1000 design. The Yangjiang 5 is the first construction of a Gen-III ACPR-1000 reactor now being readied to go online and one more Gen-III ACPR-1000 is to go online at this plant in 2019. Unit 5 is the first Chinese unit to feature a domestically-developed digital control system. Once all six units are completed at Yangjiang, the plant will generate some 48 billion kWh of electricity annually. Compared with the equivalent generation using fossil fuels, the plant will reducing the consumption of standard coal by 14.83 million tonnes and carbon dioxide emissions by 38.78 million tonnes.
Mircea Ionescu says
Indeed we need real solutions for disposal of radioactive waste. This was postponed to much because the interim storage have good results. On the other hand it seems that it is necessary, from economical reasons, to have the delayed decommissioning and disposal.
But the real problems are not from technical point of view, we may talk about some finance due next factors:
– First it seems the electric energy market don’t give the solutions, maybe we must think that energy (electric and heating) must be public service, not stock exchange product;
– Also if we have more renewable energy we will need to double the product capacity, even if we resolve the electric energy storage, for the same electric energy demand;
– Finally even that we will have more renewable, also nuclear and coal, it is o problem to resolve the demand of energy if all the people on the globe will consume the same energy like people in the most development countries.
Will be necessary new technologies. It seem that the Generation IV of Reactors could be in the best position. Also I hope more from Hydrogen technologies .
But finally, the market didn’t have the rules of free market and also it is not attractive for investors, private ones.