Last week, a group of independent energy consultants and analysts released the much-anticipated 2023 edition of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2023 (WNISR). In over 500 pages, the report provides a detailed assessment of the status and trends of the international nuclear industry, covering more than 40 countries. Now in its 18th edition, the report is known for its fact-based approach providing details on operation, construction, and decommissioning of the world’s nuclear reactors. Although it regularly points out failings of the nuclear industry, it has become a landmark study, widely read within the industry. Its release last week was covered by major energy and business news media, including Reuters (twice) and Bloomberg.
On December 2, the United States and 21 other countries pledged to triple the global nuclear energy capacity by 2050. The declaration, made during the UN climate summit of the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, sought to recognize “the key role of nuclear energy in achieving global net-zero greenhouse gas emissions-carbon neutrality by or around mid-century and in keeping a 1.5-degree Celsius limit on temperature rise within reach.” The pledge was worded as a commitment “to work together to advance a global aspirational goal of tripling nuclear energy capacity from 2020 by 2050.” It was aspirational—and ambitious.
To discuss this pledge against the nuclear industry’s current trends and status, I sat down with Mycle Schneider, lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.)
François Diaz-Maurin: How was the release of your report last week?
Mycle Schneider: Very good. Very good. I mean, the organizers were all very happy about the turnout and coverage is enormous.
Diaz-Maurin: It’s undoubtedly a landmark report. With over 500 pages, it’s also massive. In a nutshell, what should our readers know about the main developments in the world nuclear industry over the past year?
Schneider: It really depends on from which angle you approach the issue. I think, overall, the mind-boggling fact is that the statistical outcome of this analysis is dramatically different from the perception that you can get when you open the newspapers or any kind of media reporting on nuclear power. Everybody gets the impression that this is kind of a blooming industry and people get the idea that there are nuclear power plants popping up all over the world. But what we’ve seen is that some of the key indicators are showing a dramatic decline. In fact, the share of nuclear power in the world commercial electricity mix has been dropping by almost half since the middle of the 1990s. And the drop in 2022 was by 0.6 percentage points, which is the largest drop in a decade, since the post-Fukushima year 2012.
We have seen a four percent drop in electricity generation by nuclear power in 2022, which, if you take into account that China increased by three percent and if you look at the world, means that the drop was five percent outside China. So it’s significantly different from the perception you can get, and we can dig into some of the additional indicators. For example, constructions [of new reactors] give you an idea what the trends are and what the dynamic is in the industry. And so, when you look at constructions you realize that, since the construction start of Hinkley Point C in the United Kingdom in late 2019 until the middle of 2023, there were 28 construction starts of nuclear reactors in the world. Of these, 17 were in China and all 11 others were carried out by the Russian nuclear industry in various countries. There was no other construction start worldwide.
Diaz-Maurin: How many of those reactors listed as being under construction you think will likely never be finished?
Schneider: That is impossible to forecast. We know historically that one in nine reactors were at some stage of construction and never made it to the grid. Sometimes we get these reactivated construction sites that have been dormant for many years. The Iranian reactors in Bushehr, for example, originally were started building in 1975-1976, got dormant after the Iranian revolution in 1979, and construction was then restarted by the Russians even though it was originally a German project. The second unit is still under construction now. We’ve seen stories like this several times. Currently, we have a problem with a reactor in Brazil [Angra-3] that was started building by the German nuclear industry, but now we don’t really know if it is under construction or halted again. So I don’t know how many will not be finished, but historically, it’s one in nine.
“We have had actually an increasing capacity that generates less.”
Diaz-Maurin: Let’s go back to the decline of nuclear energy. Is it a drop in terms of electricity generation or installed capacity?
Schneider: The main drop is in the number of operating nuclear reactors and the electricity generated by nuclear power plants, not the installed capacity. It’s interesting, because the installed capacity according to Status Report data increased until the end of 2022. But this happened only because of the German decision to “stretch” the operation of its reactors. It was not a lifetime extension, but a stretch mode because they weren’t allowed to renew [the nuclear] fuel, they reshuffled the fuel assemblies [inside the reactors’ core] in order to stretch operation and, and wind it down until the middle of April . That’s how Germany’s four gigawatts [of installed capacity] were carried into 2023. If they had closed [the reactors] as it was planned, then the historic maximum [of global capacity] would have remained 2006. So, [the global capacity] was just above the historic maximum and has dropped below that by the middle of 2023.
The point is that we have had actually an increasing capacity that generates less. And, for obvious reasons, the most dramatic drop was in France. The French reactor performance has been in decline since 2015. That is, to me, one of the really remarkable outcomes in recent years. If you compare the year 2010 to 2022, in France, the drop [in electricity generated] was 129 terawatt hours. What happened is basically that, from 2015 onward, the trend line was toward a reducing electricity generation due to an accumulation of events, which are important to understand.
It’s not so much the stress corrosion cracking [in reactor vessels] that everybody has been talking about or another technical phenomenon that hit the French nuclear power plants worst, although it’s true it had a significant impact and was totally unexpected. So, it’s not an aging effect, although you do have aging effects on top of it because a lot of reactors are reaching 40 years and need to pass inspections and require refurbishment, etc. But you had climate effects in France too. And strikes also hit nuclear power plants. You don’t have that in other countries. So, it’s the accumulation of effects that explain the decline in electricity generation. This unplanned and chaotic drop in nuclear power generation in France compares with the loss of nuclear generation in Germany of 106 terawatt hours between 2010 and 2022, but in this case due to a planned and coordinated nuclear phaseout.
Diaz-Maurin: That is an interesting way to look at the data. What is the biggest risk of keeping existing reactors operating up to 80 years, as some suggest, or even more?
Schneider: Well, nobody knows. This has never been done. It’s like: “What’s the risk of keeping a car on the street for 50 years?” I don’t know. It’s not the way you do things, usually. First, I should say that we’re not looking at risk in that Status Report. This is not the subject of the report. But the lifetime extension of reactors raises the questions of nuclear safety—and security, which has always been a topic for the Bulletin. If you have a reactor that has been designed in the 1970s, at the time nobody was talking or even thinking about drones or hacking, for example. People think of drones in general as a means to attack a nuclear power plant by X Y, Z. But in fact, what we’ve seen in the past are numerous drone flights over nuclear facilities. And so, there is the danger of sucking up information during those overflights. This raises security risks in another way. So, this idea of modernizing nuclear facilities continuously is obviously only possible to some degree. You can replace everything in a car, except for the body of the car. At some point, it’s not the same facility anymore. But you can’t do that with a nuclear power plant.
Diaz-Maurin: Talking about old facilities, Holtec International—the US-based company that specializes in nuclear waste management—say they want to restart the shutdown Palisades generating station in Michigan. Is it good news?
Schneider: To my knowledge, the only time that a closed nuclear power plant has been restarted was in Armenia, after the two units had been closed [in 1989] after a massive earthquake. We don’t have precise knowledge of the conditions of that restart, so I’m not so sure that this would be a good reference case. One has to understand that when a nuclear reactor is closed, it’s for some reason. It is not closed because [the utility] doesn’t like to do this anymore. In general, the most prominent reason [for closing reactors] over the past few years was poor economics.
This is, by the way, one of the key issues we’ve been looking at in the 2023 report: These entirely new massive subsidy programs in the US in particular didn’t exist [a year ago]. There were some limited programs on state level. Now these state support programs have been increased significantly and they are coupled in with federal programs, because the reactors are not competitive. So we’re talking really about a mechanism to keep these reactors online. That Palisades would restart is unique, in Western countries at least. For a plant that has been set to be decommissioned to restart, this has never been done. And, by the way, Holtec is not a nuclear operator. It is a firm that has specialized in nuclear decommissioning.
Now, that companies like Holtec can actually buy closed nuclear power plants and access their decommissioning funds with the promise to dismantle faster than would have been done otherwise, this is an entirely recent approach with absolutely no guarantee that it works. Under this scheme, there is no precedent where this has been done from A to Z. And obviously, there is the risk of financial default. For instance, it is unclear what happens if Holtec exhausts the funds before the decommissioning work is complete. Holtec’s level of liability is unclear to me prior to the taxpayer picking up the bill.
Diaz-Maurin: At Palisades, Holtec’s plan is to build two small modular reactors.
Schneider: Holtec is not a company that has any experience in operating—even less constructing—a nuclear power plant. So having no experience is not a good sign to begin with. Now, when it comes to SMRs—I call them “small miraculous reactors”—they are not existing in the Western world. One must be very clear about that. There are, worldwide, four [SMR] units that are in operation: two in China and two in Russia. And the actual construction history [for these reactors] is exactly the opposite to what was promised. The idea of small modular reactors was essentially to say: “We can build those fast. They are easy to build. They are cheap. It’s a modular production. They will be basically built in a factory and then assembled on site like Lego bricks.” That was the promise.
For the Russian project, the plant was planned for 3.7 years of construction. The reality was 12.7 years. In China, it took 10 years instead of five. And it’s not even only about delays. If you look at the load factors that were published by the Russian industry on the Power Reactor Information System (PRIS) of the IAEA, these SMRs have ridiculously low load factors, and we don’t understand the reasons why they don’t produce much. We know nothing about the Chinese operational record.
Diaz-Maurin: Last month, NuScale, the US-based company that develops America’s flagship SMR, lost its only customer, the Utah Associated Municipal Power System, a conglomerate of municipalities and utilities. This happened allegedly after a financial advisory firm reported on NuScale’s problems of financial viability. Have you followed this demise?
Schneider: Yes, of course. What happened there is that NuScale had promised in 2008 that it would start generating power by 2015. We are now in 2023 and they haven’t started construction of a single reactor. They have not even actually a certification license for the model that they’ve been promoting in the Utah municipal conglomerate. That’s because they have increased [the capacity of each module] from originally 40 megawatts to 77 megawatts.
“You need to build many modules if you want to get into economies of scale by number, if you don’t get into it by size.”
Diaz-Maurin: Why is that? Is it a matter of economy of scale?
Schneider: Yes, of course. You need to build many modules if you want to get into economies of scale by number, if you don’t get into it by size. This is actually the entire history of nuclear power. So NuScale sought to increase the unit size in Utah. But then the deal with the municipalities collapsed after the new cost assessment in early 2023 showed that the six-module facility NuScale had planned would cost $9.3 billion, a huge increase over earlier estimates. It’s about $20,000 per kilowatt installed—almost twice as expensive as the most expensive [large-scale] EPR reactors in Europe.
Diaz-Maurin: Is it the same with the waste generated? Some analysts looking at the waste streams of SMRs conclude that smaller reactors will produce more radioactive materials per unit of kilowatt hour generated compared to larger reactors.
Schneider: That’s the MacFarlane and colleagues’ paper, which is pretty logical if you think about it. If you have a small quantity of nuclear material that irradiates other materials, then it’s proportionally more per installed megawatt than for a large reactor in which there is a larger core.
Diaz-Maurin: You were talking about subsidies in the United States, some of which go to the small modular reactor industry. Some say that the demise of NuScale was due to the Energy Department going all in with small modular reactors despite negative market signals. But isn’t it the very purpose of government funding to fund innovative projects, despite their financial risk?
Schneider: Of course, many technologies have been supported under the Inflation Reduction Act and many others will continue to receive significant support. But the problem here is different. The entire logic that has been built up for small modular reactors is with the background of climate change emergency. That’s the big problem we have.
Diaz-Maurin: Can you explain this?
Schneider: Climate change emergency contains the notion of urgency. And so we are talking about something where the time factor needs to kick in. If we look at how other reactor technologies have been introduced, a lot of them were supported by government funding, like the EPR in Europe or Westinghouse’s AP-1000 in the United States. Comparatively, the current status of SMR development—whether it’s NuScale, which is the most advanced, or others—corresponds to that of the middle of the 1990s [of the large light-water reactors]. The first EPR started electricity generation in 2022 and commercial operation only in 2023. And it’s the same with the AP-1000. By the way, both reactor types are not operating smoothly; they are still having some issues. So, considering the status of development, we’re not going to see any SMR generating power before the 2030s. It’s very clear: none. And if we are talking about SMRs picking up any kind of substantial amounts of generating capacity in the current market, if ever, we’re talking about the 2040s at the very earliest.
“This pledge is completely, utterly unrealistic.”
Diaz-Maurin: And that’s exactly where I want to turn the discussion now: nuclear and climate. At the COP28 last week in Dubai, 22 countries pledged to triple the global nuclear energy capacity of 2020 by 2050. What do these countries have in common when it comes to nuclear energy? In other words, why these 22 countries and not others?
Schneider: Most of them are countries that are already operating nuclear power plants and have their own interest in trying to drag money support, most of which by the way would go into their current fleets. Take EDF [France’s state-owned utility company], for example. Through the French government, EDF is lobbying like mad to get support from the European Union—European taxpayers’ money—for its current fleet. It’s not even for new construction, because the French know that they won’t do much until 2040 anyway. There is also another aspect that is related and that illustrates how this pledge is completely, utterly unrealistic.
The pledge to triple nuclear energy capacity is not to be discussed first in terms of pros or cons, but from the point of view of feasibility. And from this point of view, just looking at the numbers, it’s impossible. We are talking about a target date of 2050, which is 27 years from now. In terms of nuclear development, that’s tomorrow morning. If we look at what happened in the industry over the past 20 years since 2003, there have been 103 new nuclear reactors starting operation. But there have been also 110 that closed operation up until mid 2023. Overall, it’s a slightly negative balance. It’s not even positive. Now if you consider the fact that 50 of those new reactors that were connected to the grid were in China alone and that China closed none, the world outside China experienced a negative balance of 57 reactors over the past 20 years.
Diaz-Maurin: But some might argue that this is because the world was still not recognizing the urgency of addressing climate change.
Schneider: No. Excuse me but if you look at the AP-1000 reactor, it should have come online by 2010. Back in 2002, the US government pledged under the program “Nuclear Power 2010” (that’s how it was called) to have “at least” two new reactors online by 2010. But the two are not even operating now. Only one of those reactors is currently in operation, 23 years later. That’s the reality. And this despite huge amounts of public money being poured into these projects. So this has nothing to do with climate change or the difference in the perception of emergency. The nuclear industry just did not deliver.
Now, if we look forward 27 years, if all the reactors that have lifetime extension licenses (or have other schemes that define longer operation) were to operate until the end of their license, 270 reactors will still be closed by 2050. This is very unlikely anyway because, empirically, reactors close much earlier: The average closing age over the past five years is approximately 43 years, and hardly any reactor reached the end of its license period. But even if they did, it would be 270 reactors closed in 27 years.
You don’t have to do math studies to know that it’s 10 per year. At some point it’s over. Just to replace those closing reactors, you’d have to start building, operating, grid connecting 10 reactors per year, starting next year. In the past two decades, the construction rate has been of five per year on average. So, you would need to double that construction rate only to maintain the status quo. Now, tripling again that rate, excuse me, there is just no sign there. I am not forecasting the future, but what the industry has been demonstrating yesterday and what is it is demonstrating today shows that it’s simply impossible, from an industrial point of view, to put this pledge into reality. To me, this pledge is very close to absurd, compared to what the industry has shown.
Diaz-Maurin: Based on your report, just to replace the closures, the nuclear industry would need to build and start operating one new reactor of an average size of 700-megawatt per month. And tripling the global capacity would require an additional 2.5 new reactors per month.
Schneider: Exactly; it’s a little less if you talk in terms of capacity. The capacity to be replaced by 2050 of those 270 units would be 230 gigawatts. Now, if small modular reactors were to be a significant contributor to this pledge, hundreds or even thousands of these things would need to be built to come anywhere near that objective. It’s impossible. We should come back to reality and discuss what’s actually feasible. Only then can we discuss what would be the pros and cons of a pledge. But there was another pledge at the COP28, which is to triple the output of renewable energies by 2030. That’s seven years from now. To me, this pledge on renewable energy, if implemented, is the final nail in the coffin of the pledge on nuclear energy. It is very ambitious. Don’t underestimate that. Tripling renewables in seven years is phenomenally ambitious.
Diaz-Maurin: Is it feasible?
Schneider: Very difficult to say. But one important thing is that it’s not 22 countries. It’s over 100 countries that have already pledged their commitment to this objective. Also, a key player—if not the key player—is China. An important finding of our Status Report is that China generated for the first time in 2022 more power with solar energy than with nuclear energy. And this happened despite China being the only country to have been building [nuclear capacity] massively over the past 20 years. But still, the country is now generating more power with solar than with nuclear. The good news for the [renewable] pledge is that China is more or less on track with that tripling target. The rest of the world would have to speed up on renewables in a dramatic way to achieve this pledge. But at least China’s example shows that it’s feasible. That’s the interesting part. Because, on the contrary, there is no country—not even China—demonstrating that the nuclear pledge is possible.
“It’s like Trumpism enters energy policy.”
Diaz-Maurin: If it’s not feasible, does the nuclear pledge impede other climate actions that are urgently needed then?
Schneider: That’s a good question. I think it’s a terrible signal, indeed. It’s like Trumpism enters energy policy: It’s a pledge that has nothing to do with reality, and it doesn’t matter. It is giving you the impression that it is feasible, that it is possible. And all that completely dilutes the attention and capital that are urgently needed to put schemes into place that work. And it doesn’t start with renewables, that’s very important to stress. It starts with sufficiency, efficiency, storage, and demand response. Only later comes renewable energy.
But these options are all on the table. They’re all demonstrated to be economic and competitive. That’s not the case with nuclear energy. It’s a pledge that has no realistic foundation that is taking away significant funding and focus. It used to be negligible funding. Up until a few years back, we were talking at most tens of millions of dollars. Now, we’re talking of tens of billions that are going into subsidizing nuclear energy, especially as I said existing nuclear power plants.
Diaz-Maurin: The most notable absentees of this nuclear pledge are China and Russia. Why is that?
Schneider: I think it’s for geopolitical reasons. The pledge is about alliance building. Maybe the pledge is more about geopolitics than it is about energy policy. China and Russia are in fact the only two countries that are driving nuclear construction. So, it’s not difficult to see that these initiatives, which are now being pushed very strongly by the US and French governments, seek to isolate China and Russia for geopolitical reasons. There is some geopolitical dynamic at play in which Western countries believe they shall not leave this space for China and Russia.
It’s clear that Russia uses nuclear power as a geopolitical leverage. France has also been doing this for decades. Russia is now very present on the African continent. China is also very present in Africa, too, although more through traditional infrastructure projects such as ports, airports, and bridges, through the strategy that they have built up with the Belt and Road Initiative of investment in global infrastructure projects. Now Russia is using the same logic to put the foot in the door [of Africa] increasingly through nuclear power. Russia basically comes and says: “Listen, we bring the money, we bring the technology, we build the plant, and then we sell you the electricity.” That’s exactly the way France has sold two of its [EPR] reactors to the United Kingdom.
But the difference is that Russia, on top of it, says it takes the spent nuclear fuel back. So, it’s like a complete package. France cannot offer this as the French nuclear industry is by law prohibited to import foreign waste. So, Russia has a winning edge when it says: “We take off of your back this problem of high-level nuclear waste management.” It is what happened in Turkey, in Egypt, in Bangladesh, and in Belarus, where Russia succeeded in exporting nuclear power over the past few years.
Diaz-Maurin: The first Status Report you published was in 1992, over 30 years ago. What motivates you to keep doing this work years after years?
Schneider: Well, that’s a good question. I wonder sometimes.
Diaz-Maurin: Is it because the industry itself is not doing it?
Schneider: No. What really has motivated most of my work over the past decades is that I can’t stand what you would call today “fake news.” All my work since the 1980s has been actually driven by the attempt to increase the level of information in—and having some kind of impact on—the decision-making process. To offer a service to civil society so it can take decisions based on facts, not beliefs. When I see what happens in terms of misinformation around nuclear power, it’s scary. I think, today, the Status Report is probably more important than ever. Because there’s such an unbelievable amount of hype out there. It’s almost becoming an issue for psychologists. It has less and less to do with rationality because the numbers are clear. They are utterly clear: The cost figures are clear; the development is clear; the trend analysis is clear. So it is clear, but it doesn’t matter. It’s like the claim of stolen elections of Trump supporters. All court cases have shown that this was not the case. But, for half of the US population, it doesn’t matter. And I find this absolutely scary. When it comes to issues like nuclear power, it’s fundamental that decisions are made on the basis of facts.
Diaz-Maurin: Why is that?
Schneider: Because the stakes are incredibly high. First because of the capital involved. Researchers studying corruption cases know that the size of large projects’ contracts is a key driver for corruption. And the nuclear industry has been struggling with all kinds of mechanisms that are fraud yields. Financial corruption is only one issue.
Another is falsification. For a long time, we thought Japan Steel Works [JSW] was the absolute exemplary industry. Japanese factories used to build high quality and highly reliable key forged parts for nuclear power plants. It turns out, they have been falsifying quality-control documentation in hundreds of cases for decades. Corruption and falsification are two of the issues affecting the nuclear industry.
And, of course, the Bulletin has had a long focus on military issues related to nuclear energy. When we are talking about issues like SMRs, the key issue is not whether they are going to be safer or not, because there are not going to be many around anyway. So, safety is not the primary issue. But once you start signing cooperation agreements, it opens the valves to the proliferation of nuclear knowledge. And that is a big problem, because this knowledge can always be used in two ways: One is military for nuclear explosives, and the other is civilian for nuclear electricity and medical applications. Opening these valves on the basis of hype or false promise is a disaster. And the ones most actively opening these valves are the Russians. They are educating thousands of people from all around the world in nuclear materials and nuclear technology. In the United States, part of the thinking appears to say: “Oh, for God’s sake, better we train these people.”
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