World Watch Institute’s Latest Report

Nuclear Power in a Post-Fukushima World

Authors – Mycle Schneider, Antony Froggatt and Steve Thomas

Read the full report here

 

Executive Summary

Four weeks after the beginning of the nuclear crisis on Japan’s east coast, the situation at the country’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant remains far from stabilized. The damaged reactors continue to leak radioactivity, and although it is impossible to predict the overall impact of the disaster, the consequences for the international nuclear industry will be devastating.

 

The present World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2010–2011 was to be published at the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. The report provides the reader with the basic quantitative and qualitative facts about nuclear power plants in operation, under construction, and in planning phases throughout the world. It assesses the economic performance of past and current nuclear projects and compares their development to that of leading renewable energy sources. An extensive annex provides a country-by-country analysis of nuclear programs around the world.

 

The report also includes the first published overview of reactions to the catastrophe in Japan. But developments even prior to March 11, when the Fukushima crisis began, illustrate that the international nuclear industry has been unable to stop the slow decline of nuclear energy. Not enough new units are coming online, and the world’s reactor fleet is aging quickly. Moreover, it is now evident that nuclear power development cannot keep up with the pace of its renewable energy competitors.

 

Annual renewables capacity additions have been outpacing nuclear start-ups for 15 years. In the United States, the share of renewables in new capacity additions skyrocketed from 2 percent in 2004 to 55 percent in 2009, with no new nuclear coming on line. In 2010, for the first time, worldwide cumulated installed capacity of wind turbines (193 gigawattsa), biomass and waste-to-energy plants (65 GW), and solar power (43 GW) reached 381 GW, outpacing the installed nuclear capacity of 375 GW prior to the Fukushima disaster. Total investment in renewable energy technologies has been estimated at $243 billion in 2010.

 

As of April 1, 2011, there were 437 nuclear reactors operating in the world—seven fewer than in 2002. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) currently lists 64 reactors as “under construction” in 14 countries. By comparison, at the peak of the industry’s growth phase in 1979, there were 233 reactors being built concurrently. In 2008, for the first time since the beginning of the nuclear age, no new unit was started up, while two were added in 2009, five in 2010, and two in the first three months of 2011b. During the same time period, 11 reactors were shut down.

 

In the European Union, as of April 1, 2011, there were 143 reactors officially operationald, down from a historical maximum of 177 units in 1989.

 

In 2009, nuclear power plants generated 2,558 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity, about 2 percent less than the previous year. The industry’s lobby organization the World Nuclear Association headlined “another drop in nuclear generation”—the fourth year in a row. The role of nuclear power is declining steadily and now accounts for about 13 percent of the world’s electricity generation and 5.5 percent of the commercial primary energy.

 

In 2010, 16 of the 30 countries operating nuclear power plants (one fewer than in previous years due to the closure of the last reactor in Lithuania) maintained their nuclear share in electricity generation, while nine decreased their share and five increased their share.

 

The average age of the world’s operating nuclear power plants is 26 years. Some nuclear utilities envisage reactor lifetimes of 40 years or more. Considering that the average age of the 130 units that already have been closed is about 22 years, the projected doubling of the operational lifetime appears rather optimistic. One obvious effect of the Fukushima disaster is that operating age will be looked at in a quite different manner, as illustrated by the German government’s decision to suspend operation of all reactors over 30 years old immediately following the start of the crisis.

 

One scenario in this report assumes an average lifetime of 40 years for all operating and inconstruction reactors in order to estimate how many plants would be shut down year by year. This makes possible an evaluation of the minimum number of plants that would have to come on line over the coming decades to maintain the same number of operating plants. In addition to the units under construction, leading to a capacity increase of 5 GW (less than the seven German units currently off line), 18 additional reactors would have to be finished and started up prior to 2015. This corresponds to one new grid connection every three months, with an additional 191 units (175 GW) over the following decade—one every 19 days. This situation has changed little from previous years.

 

Achievement of this 2015 target is simply impossible given existing constraints on the manufacturing of key reactor components—aside from any post-Fukushima effect. As a result, even if the installed capacity level could be maintained, the number of operating reactors will decline over the coming years unless lifetime extensions beyond 40 years become the widespread standard. The scenario of generalized lifetime extensions is getting less likely after Fukushima, as many questions regarding safety upgrades, maintenance costs, and other issues would need to be more carefully addressed.

 

With extremely long lead times of 10 years and more, it will be practically impossible to maintain, let alone increase, the number of operating nuclear power plants over the next 20 years. The flagship EPR project at Olkiluoto in Finland, managed by the largest nuclear builder in the world, AREVA NP, has turned into a financial fiasco. The project is four years behind schedule and at least 90 percent over budget, reaching a total cost estimate of €5.7 billion ($8.3 billion) or close to €3,500 ($5,000) per kilowatt.

 

The dramatic post-Fukushima situation adds to the international economic crisis and is exacerbating many of the problems that proponents of nuclear energy are facing. If there was no obvious sign that the international nuclear industry could eventually turn empirically evident downward trend into a promising future, the Fukushima disaster is likely to accelerate the decline.