Nuclear Renaissance: Myths and Realities

The global “nuclear renaissance”, much touted a decade ago in the West, especially under George W Bush in the United States, and sought to be engineered through massive subsidies and loan guarantees, has turned out to be a non-starter. It is a giant myth created by the international nuclear lobby which has cynically tried to exploit the global public’s genuine concerns about climate change.

In fact, globally, nuclear power has been steadily declining. Nuclear power generation peaked in 2006 and is now falling by 2 percent. “The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2009” underlines a decline in the number of “operating” reactors from 444 in 2002 to 438 in 2009.55

To maintain the existing number of operating plants, the report concludes, an additional 42 reactors with a capacity of 16,000 MW would have to be planned, built and started up by 2015—that is to say, one reactor every one-and-a-half months, which is practically impossible, as reactor construction takes at least 10 years.[i] According to another expert group, there will be 30 per cent fewer nuclear reactors globally by 2030.[ii]

The “plans”, “considerations” and “intentions” of a host of countries, mainly in Asia, are cited as sources of the coming nuclear renaissance.  However, many of these countries lack the necessary infrastructure, economic wherewithal, political climate, regulatory framework, and even favourable geological conditions, to initiate a revival of nuclear power.

“The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2009” noted that of the 52 reactors under construction around the world, the most significant 26 had encountered construction delays, and 13 had been listed as “under construction” for over 20 years. In 2010, a total of 65 reactors under construction were cited as a pointer to the coming upsurge, out of which almost half (31) are “not planning” nuclear power generation and a further 14 are just “considering” it. Only three countries have either ordered a reactor or have one under construction.

Globally, nuclear reactor expansion passed its peak in 1979, when 233 reactors were listed as being “under construction”. The US had cancelled 138 orders for reactors by 2009. By 2002, France recorded a total of 253 cancellations in 31 countries, after which it stopped publishing statistics on cancellations.

Globally, the average age of reactors is increasing and 143 reactors are on their way to retirement by 2030. A majority of them will not be replaced. Only 60 reactors are on the drawing board as of now. Two-thirds of them are in Asia, and very few in the developed countries which have had a long—and unhappy—experience with nuclear power.

Nuclear power contributes just 12 per cent to global electricity generation, 5 per cent to primary energy production, and 2 per cent to final energy consumption. The OECD International Energy Agency’s “World Energy Outlook” in fact projects a decline in nuclear energy’s contribution to total electricity generation—from 14 per cent in 2007 to 10 per cent in 2030.

Long gestation periods, proliferation risks, bottlenecks in the reactor and components manufacturing sectors, an aging nuclear workforce, scarcity of capital in the developing countries, nuclear waste management problems, and difficulties with gaining even minimal public acceptability are the major constraints on a revival of nuclear power.  The nuclear industry has no easy answers to any of these issues.[iii]

Nuclear power is prohibitively expensive. Flaunted as “too cheap to meter” at the beginning, nuclear power’s capital costs are now considered “out of control” (Time, December 2008).[iv] Capital costs per megawatt in the US are well over $10,000, compared with $2,000 in the 1970s and $4,000 in the 1980s. A similar escalation trend can be seen in France.

In India, the completion costs of the last 10 reactors have been at least 300 per cent over budget on average. The much-hyped nuclear renaissance is planned mainly in India and China, where the economic burden is shifted to the exchequer without any accountability or auditing.

Nowhere in the world is the nuclear industry able to sustain itself without huge subsidies, both direct and hidden. From 1947 to 1999, the US nuclear industry received over $115 billion in direct taxpayer subsidies. Government subsidies for wind and solar energy for the same period amounted to only $5.7 billion.

Invariably, the actual cost of nuclear power is much higher than the cost estimated by the industry. The generation costs do not include the cost of mining, nuclear waste disposal and other fuel chain costs. Decommissioning a nuclear power plant needs money that’s equivalent to 30 to 50 per cent of the initial capital cost. Rapidly rising commodity prices, lack of component production facilities, nuclear liability issues, currency fluctuations and inflation also escalate costs.

The viability of nuclear plants is also overstated by ignoring huge financial costs, comparing other alternatives on an “overnight cost” basis, citing FOAK (“first of a kind”) costs, avoiding large public spending on nuclear R&D and human resource development, and excluding the environmental and social costs of nuclear energy.

Courtesy- CNDP report ‘Courting nuclear disaster in Maharashtra’

[i] “Nuclear decline set to continue, says report” Nuclear Engineering International Aug 27, 2009,

[ii] “A Renaissance of Nuclear Energy” Prognois Report

[iii] Mycle Schneider et al.

[iv] “Nuclear’s Comeback: Still No Energy Panacea” Time, Dec 31, 2008,8816,1869203,00.html

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