Last year was a "positive year for nuclear power" according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA). And indeed it was, compared to 2017, which was one of the industry's worst-ever years.
The WNA cited nuclear power's net gain in 2018 (nine reactor grid connections compared to six permanent shutdowns). A superficial look at the numbers suggests some more good news for the industry. The number of reactor grid connections (start-ups) over the past five years (38) almost doubled the number in the five years before that (21). If the number doubled again, the much-hyped nuclear renaissance would be upon us.
A casual observer might also be impressed by the fact that the number of reactor grid connections and construction starts over the past decade exceeded the number of permanent reactor shutdowns.
And some more good news for the industry: according to the WNA, 41 reactors will enter commercial operation in the four years from 2019-22. But after that, the pre-Fukushima mini-renaissance (38 reactor construction starts from 2008-2010) slows dramatically with an estimated total of just nine reactor start-ups in the following four years.
Ominously for the industry, the 22 construction starts from 2014-18 was less than half the number (49) from 2009-13.
The (independent) World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) noted in early January that 49 reactors are under construction worldwide - the first time the number has fallen below 50 in a decade, down 19 since 2013, and the number has decreased for five years in a row.
If all these contradictory good-news, bad-news figures seem a little … contradictory, that's because nuclear power currently reflects two opposing dynamics: the mini-renaissance is evident but will subside by the mid-2020s, and the Era of Nuclear Decommissioning (discussed later) has begun and will be in sharp focus by the mid-2020s.
By contrast, renewable power generation continues to expand rapidly and costs continue to fall dramatically. Renewables accounted for 26.5 percent of global electricity generation in 2017 compared to nuclear power's 10.3 percent.
Ageing reactor fleet
The industry faces severe problems, not least the ageing of the global reactor fleet. The average age of the fleet continues to rise and reached 30 years in mid-2018. A reasonable estimate is that the average lifespan of the current reactor fleet will be about 40 years.
There will likely be an average of 8-11 permanent reactor shutdowns annually over the next few decades:
· The International Energy Agency expects a "wave of retirements of ageing nuclear reactors" and an "unprecedented rate of decommissioning" - almost 200 reactor shutdowns between 2014 and 2040.
· The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) anticipates 320 gigawatts (GW) of retirementsfrom 2017 to 2050 (that's about 80 percent of the current worldwide reactor fleet).
· Another IAEA report estimatesup to 139 GW of permanent shutdowns from 2018-2030 and up to 186 GW of further shutdowns from 2030-2050.
· The reference scenario in the 2017 edition of the WNA's Nuclear Fuel Report has 140 reactors closing by 2035.
· A 2017 Nuclear Energy Insider article estimates up to 200 permanent shutdowns over the next two decades.
So an average of 8-11 construction starts and grid connections will be required to maintain current nuclear generation. Yet construction starts have averaged just 4.5 over the past five years.
For the first time in many years, perhaps ever, the IAEA was up-front about the grim prospects for nuclear power in a September 2018 report. The IAEA said:
Nuclear power's electricity generating capacity risks shrinking in the coming decades as ageing reactors are retired and the industry struggles with reduced competitiveness … Over the short term, the low price of natural gas, the impact of renewable energy sources on electricity prices, and national nuclear policies in several countries following the accident at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011 are expected to continue weighing on nuclear power's growth prospects ... In addition, the nuclear power industry faces increased construction times and costs due to heightened safety requirements, challenges in deploying advanced technologies and other factors.
The IAEA's low and high projections for global nuclear power capacity in 2030 are both 36 percent lower than the same projections in 2010, the year before the Fukushima disaster.
Former World Nuclear Association executive Steve Kidd noted in an August 2018 article:
The current upward spike in reactor commissioning certainly looks impressive (at least compared with the recent past) but there are few signs that here will be a further uplift in the 2020s. What we see today is largely the result of rapid growth in the Chinese industry, which has now seemingly ended. ... In Asia, the sharp downturn in Chinese interest in nuclear is unlikely to be replaced by India or by a combination of the other populous counties there. It is clear that without a strong lead from the established nuclear countries, a worldwide uplift in reactor construction is not going to happen.
And therein lies a fundamental problem for the nuclear industry: it is in a frightful mess in the three countries that accounted for 56 percent of global nuclear power capacity just before the Fukushima disaster: the US, France and Japan. A 2017 EnergyPostWeekly article said "the EU, the US and Japan are busy committing nuclear suicide."
Bright New World, an Australian pro-nuclear lobby group (that accepts secret corporate donations) listed these wins in 2018:
1. Taiwanese voters voiced support for overturning legislation to eliminate nuclear power.
2. Poland announced plans for a 6-9 GW nuclear sector.
3. China connected the world's first AP1000 and EPR reactors to the electrical grid.
4. Some progress with Generation IV R&D projects (Terrestrial Energy, NuScale, Moltex), and the passing of the US Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act which aims to speed up the development of advanced reactors.
Those are modest and pyrrhic wins. To take each in turn:
1. Taiwan's government remains committed to phasing out nuclear power although the 2025 deadline has been abandoned following a referendum in November 2018.
2. Poland might join the club of countries producing nuclear power - or it might not. Currently it is a member of a group of countries that failed to complete partially-built power reactors and have never generated nuclear power, along with Austria, Cuba, the Philippines, and North Korea.
3. China's nuclear power program has stalled - the country has not opened a new construction site for a commercial reactor since December 2016. The most likely outcome over the next decade is that a small number of new reactor projects will be approved each year, well short of previous projections and not enough to match the decline in the rest of the world.
4. Generation IV fantasies are as fantastical as ever. David Elliot â€’ author of the 2017 book Nuclear Power: Past, Present and Future - notes that many Generation IV concepts "are in fact old ideas that were looked at in the early days and mostly abandoned. There were certainly problems with some of these early experimental reactors, some of them quite dramatic."
One example of the gap between Generation IV rhetoric and reality was Transatomic Power's decision to give up on its molten salt reactor R&D project in the US in September 2018 - just weeks before the public release of the New Fire propaganda film that heavily promotes the young entrepreneurs who founded Transatomic. The company tried but failed to raise a modest US$15 million for the next phase of its R&D project.
An article by four current and former researchers from Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Engineering and Public Policy, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in July 2018, argues that no US advanced reactor design will be commercialised before mid-century.
Further, the Carnegie authors systematically investigated how a domestic market could develop to support a small modular reactor industry in the US over the next few decades - including using them to back up wind and solar, desalinate water, produce heat for industrial processes, or serve military bases - and were unable to make a convincing case.
Long-time energy journalist Kennedy Maize recently argued in POWER magazine that Generation IV R&D projects are "longshots" and that the "highest profile of the LWR apostates is TerraPower ... backed by Microsoft founder and multi-billionaire Bill Gates. Founded in 2006, TerraPower is working on a liquid-sodium-cooled breeder-burner machine that can run on uranium waste, while it generates power and plutonium, with the plutonium used to generate more power, all in a continuous process."
TerraPower recently abandoned its plan for a prototype reactor in China due to new restrictions placed on nuclear trade with China by the Trump administration.
The Bright New World lobby group might have cited some other pyrrhic wins in 2018. The French government abandoned previous plans to reduce nuclear power to 50 percent of total electricity generation by 2035 (compared to 71.6 percentcurrently) but still plans to shut 14 reactors by 2035. Cost estimates for two French-built reactors â€’ one in France and the other in Finland â€’ have increased by a factor of 2.5â€’3and the reactors are the best part of a decade behind schedule.
The Vogtle reactor project in the US state of Georgia came close to being abandoned last year but it was rescued despite multi-year delays and monumental cost overruns (the estimate for two AP1000 reactors has doubled from US$14 billion to US$28 billion).
The current cost estimate for Vogtle reactors #3 and #4 is an order of magnitude greater than Westinghouse's 2006 estimate of US$1.4-$1.9 billion to build one AP1000 reactor. To find another blowout of that magnitude you'd need to go back to … Vogtle #1 and #2! Built in the 1970s and 1980s, the cost of the first Vogtle twin-reactor project skyrocketed 13-fold, from US$660 million to US$8.7 billion (around US$18 billion in today's money).
The only other reactor construction project in the US - a twin-reactor AP1000 project in South Carolina - was abandoned in 2017 after the expenditure of US$9â€’10.4 billion. That disaster bankrupted Westinghouse and almost bankrupted its parent company Toshiba. So much for the nuclear renaissance.
The Era of Nuclear Decommissioning
In many countries with nuclear power, the prospects for new reactors are bleak and rear-guard battles are being fought to extend the lifespans of ageing reactors that are approaching or past their design date. A new era is approaching â€’ the Era of Nuclear Decommissioning â€’ following on from nuclear power's growth spurt from the 1970s to the 1990s then 20 years of stagnation.
The Era of Nuclear Decommissioning will entail:
- A 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 reactor 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.
And if that sounds like wishful thinking from someone who opposes the industry, keep in mind that nuclear power supporters have issued any number of warnings in recent years about nuclear power's "rapidly accelerating crisis" and a "crisis that threatens the death of nuclear energy in the West", while pondering what if anything might be salvaged from the "ashes of today's dying industry".