The global nuclear decline

The “nuclear renaissance” is a myth. Forecasters continue to overestimate the growth of atomic energy, write Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt, not least in China, where the energy mix remains dominated by coal.

The French president Nicolas Sarkozy visited China in late November, just prior to the tenth EU-China Summit. During his stay, large bilateral contracts were signed between the French and Chinese energy and transport industries. Nuclear vendor AREVA and the Guangdong Nuclear Power Corporation signed an agreement for the construction of two 1.6 gigawatt (GW) European pressurized water reactors (EPRs), a contract worth around 8 billion euros (about $12 billion). This includes a requirement that AREVA will provide materials and services required to operate them. In addition, an agreement was reached on joint developments for feasibility studies on the future construction of a spent fuel reprocessing plant.

The agreement enables AREVA to claim the deal as “the biggest ever in the industry”, an illustration of a wide export market for its nuclear products. For the Chinese, it will bring little to change the country’s energy mix, which is uniquely dominated by coal, supplying nearly 70% of the country’s needs. In addition, China signed a contract earlier this year with Westinghouse, now owned by the Japanese Toshiba, for the construction of four of its latest design of reactors, the AP1000. China is, as it has done before, signing agreements with different nuclear vendors, to gain nuclear and other technological know-how.

Chinese projections

China operates only 11 reactors, which generate 1.9% of the country’s electricity (down from 2.2% in 2003). Five additional units, totalling 3.3 GW, are under construction, bringing the total to little over 10 GW by 2010. Of all 31 nuclear countries, China has the lowest share of nuclear power in its electricity mix. It is highly unlikely that nuclear power will play a major role in China’s energy balance over the next 20 or 30 years, even if a major enlargement program did get underway, as official government forecasts suggest. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in its World Energy Outlook 2007, Chinese projections are not credible:

“The government’s target is to have 40 GW in place by 2020, implying that China must add to the plants now operating 31 GW of new plants, as well as 18 GW of nuclear capacity under construction in that year. Although efforts to build more nuclear power plants have been intensified in recent years, the target set by the government seems ambitious given the current level of development, the long construction times and the current global bottlenecks in nuclear component manufacturing, which impose extended delays on delivery. In the [IEA] Reference Scenario, installed nuclear capacity reaches 21 GW in 2020 and 31 GW in 2030.”

This is almost half of China’s projections for 2020, but corresponds to Chinese nuclear planning in the past. It is all the more surprising that the IEA considers an “alternative policy” scenario where the installed nuclear capacity reaches 55 GW by 2030. But even under this unlikely scenario, nuclear power would still represent less than France’s current installed capacity and provide no more than 6% of the nation’s power.

Nuclear “renaissance”

The status and perspectives of the global nuclear industry have been subject to a large number of publications and considerable media attention over the last few years. Claims of a “nuclear revival” have had wide exposure. However, as of December 2007, there are 439 nuclear reactors operating in the world. That is five less than five years ago (see figure 1). There are 34 units listed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as “under construction” – around 20 less than in the late 1990s. In Europe, the number of operating reactors is shrinking rapidly. In 1989, a total of 177 nuclear units were operating in what are now the 27 EU Member States. That number shrank to 146 units as of December 2007, and will decline further by the end of the decade.

In 1992, the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, WISE-Paris and Greenpeace International published the first World Nuclear Industry Status Report, which we, as two of the original authors, updated in 2004 and 2007. Our updated version in 2004 proved the 1992 analysis correct: the combined installed nuclear capacity of the 436 units operating in the world in the year 2000 was less than 352 GW – which should be compared with IAEA forecasts in the 1970s that capacity would reach up to 4,450 GW. Today, the world’s operating reactors total 371 GW. They provide 16% of the electricity, 6% of the commercial primary energy and 2% to 3% of the final energy in the world – less than hydro-power. Twenty of the 31 countries operating nuclear power plants decreased their share of nuclear power in the electricity mix when compared to 2003.

The average age of the world’s operating nuclear power plants is 23 years. Some nuclear utilities expect reactor lifetimes of 40 years or more, but considering the average age of all 117 units that have already been closed is about 22 years, a doubling of operational lifetime seems optimistic. However, in our study we assumed an average lifetime of 40 years for all operating reactors and those that are currently under construction and have calculated how many plants would be shut down year by year.

This exercise enabled us to evaluate the number of plants that would have to come on-line over the next decades in order to maintain the same number of operating plants. In addition to units currently under construction with a scheduled start-up date, 69 reactors (42 GW) would have to be planned, built and started up until 2015 – one every month and a half – and an additional 192 units over the following 10-year period – one every 18 days (see graph 2).

Ageing problem

Even if Finland and France build an EPR, China builds an additional 20 plants and Japan, South Korea or eastern Europe added a plant, the overall worldwide trend is likely to be downwards over the next two or three decades. With extremely long lead times of 10 years and more, it is practically impossible to maintain or even increase the number of operating nuclear power plants over the next 20 years, unless operating lifetimes would be substantially increased beyond 40 years on average – and there is currently no basis for such an assumption.

The lack of a trained workforce, a massive loss of competence, severe manufacturing bottlenecks, international finance institutions’ loss of confidence and strong competitors in highly dynamic natural gas and renewable energy systems all exacerbate the nuclear industry’s ageing problem. Two years after construction started, the world’s largest nuclear builder’s show-case pilot project, AREVA’s EPR reactor, Olkiluoto-3, in Finland, is two years behind schedule and 1.5 billion euros (US$2.2 billion) beyond budget.

New projects confirm key problems seen in the past. Beyond the industrial and political posturing, nuclear power is on the decline and will be for at least a decade to come.

Mycle Schneider ([email protected]) and Antony Froggatt ([email protected]) are both independent consultants on energy and environmental policy. They co-authored the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2007.