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Fading Nuclear Prospects

Tomas Kåberger, Chair of Executive Board, Renewable Energy Institute / Fredrik Lundberg, Nuclear Journalist

9 March 2021


The future for nuclear power is vanishing. Costs are falling for renewable electricity but not for nuclear. The decline in economic competitiveness started long ago. The peak in global nuclear electricity generation was 2006. In Japan it was already in 1998.

The collapse in the credibility of the nuclear industry following the Fukushima dai-ichi core melts has contributed to evaporate the vision of a recovery of the nuclear industry as a contribution to global climate policy.

Since 2011, construction has started on 51 reactors worldwide, while 74 have shut down for good, sometimes before even starting to operate. The deficit is growing.

In 2019, construction works started on only five reactors in the world, 13 reactors were shut. In 2020, construction of only three reactors started, while another six were closed.  The UN International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, set up to support nuclear power, keeps a database of all the reactors in the world. It relies on official information from governments, and is political. According to the IAEA, no nuclear reactors in Japan are in long-term shutdown in Japan. 33 are ”in operation”. A more objective source of information is found at World Nuclear Industry Status Report.

However, the number of reactors is not the only measure. The total installed generating capacity may also be relevant. As the nuclear industry in the 1960-1970 period tried the idea of building series of similar reactors, especially in France. This did not result in the predicted cost reductions. the next idea was to build das big reactors as possible as a way to reduce the cost per kWh of electricity produced. As a result, the new reactors taken into operation today are typically bigger than the older reactors taken out of service. So installed capacity, according to the IAEA, appears to have increased from 375 GW in March 2011 to 393 GW today.

However, the idea to build large reactors again failed to generate cheaper electricity. And while IAEA numbers show increased capacity in operation, electricity generation is still below the 2006 number.

This is easily explained by the political listing of Japanese reactors as being ”in operation” despite several years when they consumed more electricity than they produced.

In some countries governments spend money on new reactor projects despite the expected electricity generation costs being 2, 3, 4 or 5 times the cost of renewables. Often this is explicitly or implicitly because they want to keep or develop nuclear competencies, equipment and materials for other purposes than generation of electricity.

From a military defense perspective this comes with the cost of nuclear reactors and reprocessing plants being vulnerable to military attests that will have severe radiological consequences, which weakens defense ability.

From an economic perspective, nuclear power reactors that are not economically competitive but are politically forced into the electricity market tend to create significant inefficiencies and extra costs. Again weakening the country, industrially and economically.

So, while renewable energy has always contributed more electricity than nuclear, the difference was small 20 years ago. Now, renewables contribute three times as much. Even without hydropower, renewables have passed nuclear globally due to the rapid growth in solar and wind electricity.

Climate protection does not support nuclear expansion because renewable electricity is cheaper and more efficient when replacing fossil fuels. The nuclear future in the energy sector is bleak.

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