Nuclear power has continued to decline and is becoming increasingly unable to compete on cost and deployment volume with clean energy sources such as solar and wind.
Those are the main conclusions of the 2019 edition of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR), published each year by French nuclear consultant Mycle Schneider. In a gloomy outlook for the industry, the report adds the time needed to deploy new nuclear is further handicapping its ability to reduce carbon emissions.
The report’s authors are convinced the age of centralized, inflexible coal and nuclear power generation is coming to an end, hastening the demise of both energy sources.
Today’s study does point out, however, the 417 nuclear reactors in 31 countries still in operation have a record generation capacity of 370 GW, surpassing the 368 GW registered in 2006.
According to the latest survey, 272 reactors – two-thirds of the global fleet – have been operating for more than 30 years and in a decade or less most will have to be replaced by new generation capacity. “In the following decade to 2030, 188 units (165.5 GW) would have to be replaced – 3.2 times the number of start-ups achieved over the past decade, including 80 (19%) that have reached 41 years or more,” the report stated.
In the middle of this year, 28 reactors – 24 of them in Japan – are in long-term outage, indicating they have not generated power in the previous calendar year and first half of the current year. At least 27 of the 46 units under construction are behind schedule, mostly by several years, and only nine of the 17 units scheduled for start-up last year were connected to the grid.
Many reactors are uncompetitive against renewables in day-to-day electricity markets, in particular in the United States, and will shut down a decade or more before their licenses expire unless bailed out by new subsidies. The report explains that of “the prohibitive capital cost of [latest type] Gen-III+ reactors – on the order of $5,000-8,000-plus per kilowatt – 78-87% is for non-nuclear costs”. The authors add: “Thus, if the other 13-22% – the ‘nuclear island’ (nuclear steam supply system) – were free, the rest of the plant would still be grossly uncompetitive with renewables or efficiency. That is, even free steam from any kind of fuel, fission or fusion is not good enough because the rest of the plant costs too much.”
The advance of renewables, on the other hand, appears unstoppable, with solar and wind adding 96 GW and 49.2 GW of generation capacity, respectively, last year. Nuclear claimed an 8.8 GW share. Power output from solar and wind grew 13% and 29%, respectively, as nuclear saw meager growth of 2.4%. And while the estimated levelized cost of energy for utility scale solar has fallen by 88% in a decade – and wind 69% – the nuclear power price has surged 23%.
Even if a realistic carbon price were levied across the world, nuclear would trail renewables, according to today’s report.
“Remarkably, over the past two years the largest historic nuclear builder – Westinghouse – and its French counterpart AREVA went bankrupt,” the report states. Reactors that have extended their lifetimes and made safety-upgrade investments, and whose original construction costs were already amortized, still face rising operating costs as their age increases the frequency and expense of repairs. “Their operating-cost data are often commercial secrets, but aggregated data reveal fundamental uncompetitiveness against most electric-efficiency investments and many modern renewables,” adds the study.
Too slow to fight climate change
One of the biggest hurdles facing new nuclear is the time it takes to deploy the technology, according to the report. New plants take 5-17 years, much longer than the timescale for deploying utility scale solar or onshore wind. That means fossil-fuel plants continue to emit far more CO2 while awaiting nuclear replacements.
“Nuclear new-build thus costs many times more per kilowatt-hour so it buys many times less climate solution per dollar, than these major low-carbon competitors,” states this year’s WNISR. Renewables have a lower carbon cost per dollar and per year, the report concludes.
Fighting climate change and global warming requires scalable, mass produced and quickly deployed solutions such as solar and wind to be installed by diverse actors with little institutional preparation. Nuclear power, according to the study, is unable to meet any technical or operational need its low-carbon competitors cannot meet better, cheaper and faster.
“Whatever the rationales for continuing and expanding nuclear power, for climate protection it has become counterproductive and the new subsidies and decision rules its owners demand would dramatically slow this decade’s encouraging progress toward cheaper, faster options – more climate-effective solutions,” the report states.
Schneider and his team also stressed vested interests in the nuclear industry remain a major hurdle to renewables deployment and seek to strangle competing, cheaper energy sources in order to attract demand and capital. The study asks: “Why should a particular low-carbon solution, unable to compete after half a century, be awarded walled-garden markets and new subsidies unavailable to other low-carbon solutions?”
This content is protected by copyright and may not be reused. If you want to cooperate with us and would like to reuse some of our content, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nuclear power would seem to have a bit of an advantage over solar PV at night, especially in winter and at high latitudes where nights are so long.
I think France had the right idea going nuclear, especially at the time. Perhaps now it’s time to add some rooftop solar PV and ground source heat pumps to replace any inefficient resistance heaters and above ground air conditioning.
Surely free steam at night from geothermal or nuclear would have a value? Perhaps there is a way to store daytiime surplus energy as geological heat?
The problem is that it isn’t free. Once built, nuclear plants usually have very low operating costs, which is why it makes sense to keep them running until maintenance becomes prohibitive and/or they become unsafe. But the enormous up-front costs of new plants have to be paid off, which is why new nuclear has been a no-go for investors & utilities.
There are definitely ways to store surplus power; in Japan this has traditionally been done with pumped hydro.
“The report explains that of “the prohibitive capital cost of [latest type] Gen-III+ reactors – on the order of $5,000-8,000-plus per kilowatt – 78-87% is for non-nuclear costs”. The authors add: “Thus, if the other 13-22% – the ‘nuclear island’ (nuclear steam supply system) – were free, the rest of the plant would still be grossly uncompetitive with renewables or efficiency. That is, even free steam from any kind of fuel, fission or fusion is not good enough because the rest of the plant costs too much.”
It looks like for right now, the cost of a nuclear plant is about twice to three times the cost of an equal sized energy storage system. Mechanical generation is not able to compete with a large storage battery and electronic switching inverters to put the power onto the grid. Nuclear “claims,” “grid following” reactors, but one can’t ramp up and ramp down power output like an electronically controlled battery source can. Service stacking creates a multiple revenue stream from one asset, nuclear is good for small footprint baseload.
So, compared to Solar + Wind + Storage, even a supply of free steam from a geothermal heat well would be more expensive – 78% of the cost of nuclear?
Perhaps that’s not quite the case everywhere on Earth, and not through all times of the year.
My understanding is that the CANDU reactors in Ontario simply bypass heat into the cooling water when the electricity isn’t needed. Looking at the combined output on the IESO web page, they don’t seem to vary the reactor power level.
The Ontario utility also has something like 600 MW hydro to each 1000 MW nuclear so there’s also some flexibility there before they have to cut back the power.
The way 78-87% is written implies that there is no way for this number to change dramatically, and the article proceeds to conflate fission and fusion. There is no stated break-down of the 78-87%, so we don’t know what amount is due to labor, waste handling, or regulatory overhead. Whereas automation might bring down labor, I believe the political climate would not allow reduction in regulatory costs. Perhaps fission is doomed, but I still hold out hope that enough humans are able to differntiate fission from fusion.
Newer fusion designs call for smaller rather than larger reactors. Smaller means less costly and leads to quicker design iteration. New records in confinement time and plasma temperature are announced every few months. If we were able to achieve sufficiently high temperatures and plasma density then aneutronic processes become viable, such as proton + boron-11 (pB11). An aneutronic fusion process generates no neutrons in the main reaction and less than 1% neutrons in side reactions. This means practically no nuclear waste and almost no transmuting irradiation of the reactor resulting in potentially long reactor operating lifespans. With pB11, the output is a stream of charged particles that can be slammed into a metal plate to generate power directly. No steam. No steam turbines. No cooling towers. Removing the steam from the design further reduces cost and size. It may be possible to fit such a reactor in a jet engine or a garage and generate enough power for a city. The space occupied by a solar or wind farm with similar power generation capacity introduces its own environmental impact far greater than a compact fusion reactor. Lastly the difficulty of achieving fusion makes it almost impossible for a fusion reaction to run-away resulting in a meltdown. To stop a fusion reactor, one merely flips a switch. The inherent safety of fusion reactors should result in far lower regulatory costs.
Why summarily dismiss a solution that potentially has lower environmental impact and lower cost than solar or wind?
Fusion power generation is not achievable today, but with the rapid increase in demonstrable results in the last two decades, we should not write-off the potential. Continue deploying solar and wind but don’t leave people with the impression that we should give up on fusion.
The nuclear industry has a long history of making claims about safety and affordability which are never achieved.
But I think your last paragraph hits the most relevant point: “fusion power generation is not achievable today”. And it may never be. We have to dramatically reduce emissions by 2030, and this is a poor time to prioritize expanding the considerable government largesse which has gone into technologies that have not delivered, when we could be spending that money directly solving the problem.
By submitting this form you agree to pv magazine using your data for the purposes of publishing your comment.
Your personal data will only be disclosed or otherwise transmitted to third parties for the purposes of spam filtering or if this is necessary for technical maintenance of the website. Any other transfer to third parties will not take place unless this is justified on the basis of applicable data protection regulations or if pv magazine is legally obliged to do so.
You may revoke this consent at any time with effect for the future, in which case your personal data will be deleted immediately. Otherwise, your data will be deleted if pv magazine has processed your request or the purpose of data storage is fulfilled.
Further information on data privacy can be found in our Data Protection Policy.