A false hope

December 17, 2015

In Paris and elsewhere, advocates for nuclear power have been vociferous in demanding an expansion of that source of energy if we are to limit climate change to a modest level. For the latter proposition to come true, it is not sufficient for nuclear power to just expand, but to actually increase its share of global electricity generation. This was quantitatively expressed by two organizations that promote nuclear power—the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—who argued that “to limit the rise in global mean temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius,” nuclear energy has to increase its share of global electricity production from “11 percent in 2014 to 17 percent in 2050.” To put this in perspective, note that the nuclear share was 17.6 percent in 1996. The trend has been steadily downward and there are good reasons why that will continue.

The main reason is that nuclear power has been unable to compete economically with alternative sources of electricity generation. Nuclear power plants are very expensive to build and susceptible to significant cost and time overruns. As documented in the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, at least three-quarters of all units that were under construction in July 2015 were delayed. Financially, therefore, constructing a nuclear plant is a much higher risk compared to alternatives. Further, nuclear construction costs have typically gone up, not down, as more reactors are built, and this trend has been extensively documented in the US, in France, and in India.

What has also become clear in recent years is that operating costs for older reactors are also going up significantly enough that utilities are doing the previously unthinkable—shutting down power plants whose capital costs have been recovered and are licensed to operate for many more years. France’s audit agency, Cour des Comptes, estimated that production costs for EDF’s 58 reactors had risen by 20 percent between 2010 and 2013. In the past three years, US and Swedish utilities have decided to prematurely shut down at least eight and four reactors respectively. 

The dynamic is somewhat different in developing countries like China and India. Although they have also demonstrated the propensity for cost and time overruns, there aren’t very many old reactors to shut down, and organizations operating reactors are less subject to market pressures. But more important to evaluating the trends in the share of nuclear power is one fact: These countries are constructing just about every form of electricity generation—coal plants, wind turbines, hydroelectric dams, and solar photovoltaics. As a result, the share of nuclear power—2.39 percent and 3.53 percent for China and India respectively—will remain low for the foreseeable future. Construction of reactors in developing countries is not going to raise the global nuclear share to the levels demanded by nuclear advocates.

There are still some who hope that nuclear power will magically undergo a massive expansion within a relatively short period of time. The evidence so far suggests that this is a false hope, one that is best abandoned if we are to deal with climate change with the seriousness the problem demands.