Nuclear power climate change, nuclear power is on the skids.
Globally, nuclear power is on the skids. Its contribution to electricity generation is in a free fall, dropping from a mid-1990s peak of about 18% of worldwide electricity capacity to 10% today, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The agency expects the downward spiral to continue, hitting 5% by 2040 unless governments around the world intervene.
The driver for that intervention would be nuclear reactors’ ability to generate energy with low greenhouse gas emission. To meet the world’s energy needs and avoid the worst effects of climate change, low-carbon electricity generation must increase from providing 36% of the world’s energy today to 85% by 2040, the IEA says.
“Without an important contribution from nuclear power, the global energy transition will be that much harder,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol says in a statement accompanying an IEA nuclear power report. “Alongside renewables, energy efficiency and other innovative technologies, nuclear can make a significant contribution to achieving sustainable energy goals and enhancing energy security.”
But steep barriers to a nuclear energy renaissance exist, among them aging reactors, high costs to build new ones, safety concerns, and questions about how much nuclear is needed in the world’s energy mix.
Historically, nuclear power has played its biggest role in advanced economies, where it makes up 18% of total electricity generation today. France is the most dependent on nuclear energy, with 70% of its electricity generated from nuclear reactors. By number of operating reactors, the US leads with 98 power plants capable of generating 105 GW; France is second with 58 reactors generating 66 GW of electricity.
However, many of those reactors are old. In the US, the European Union, and Russia, plants average 35 years or more in age, nearing their designed lifetimes of 40 years.
Building new nuclear power plants based on traditional designs will be nearly impossible in developed economies, IEA analysts say. The challenges include high costs and long construction times, as well as time needed to recoup costs once plants start running, plus ongoing issues with radioactive waste disposal. In addition, the competitive electricity marketplace in the US makes it hard to sell nuclear energy against that generated more cheaply through natural gas, wind, or solar. Right now, only 11 nuclear plants are under construction in developed economies—4 in South Korea and 1 each in seven other countries.
There is more potential for nuclear energy expansion in developing nations with state-controlled, centralized economies. China is the world’s third-largest nuclear generator, with 45 reactors capable of producing 46 GW of electricity. China also has the biggest plans for new power plants, with 11 at various stages of construction, the IEA says. India is building 7; Russia, 6; and the United Arab Emirates, 4, with a sprinkling of other new plants coming throughout the rest of the world. All will be state owned, the IEA says.
The nuclear industry’s main hope for future expansion lies in a new generation of small, modular reactors that generate less than 300 MW each and are amenable to assembly-line construction. These are still under development, however, with none licensed or under construction.
A middle path between new plants and no plants is lifetime extensions for existing reactors. The IEA estimates the costs for maintenance and improvements needed to continue operating an existing nuclear reactor for an additional 10–20 years would be $500 million–$1.1 billion per gigawatt, an amount the IEA says is comparable to constructing a renewable—solar or wind—system of the same size. The result would be effectively 1 GW of new, low-carbon electricity without the delays involved in siting and building a new solar field or wind farm.
In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has already renewed and extended the operating licenses from 40 to 60 years for 90 of the 98 operating reactors. The industry is now focusing on renewals to operate for up to 80 years. Similarly, other countries are considering extending existing reactor operations but for shorter periods, the IEA reports.
These extensions present what the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) terms a “nuclear power dilemma.” The nonprofit organization, which advocates scientific solutions to global problems, has been a frequent nuclear industry critic.