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Nuclear power down for the count

By Jim Green - posted Thursday, 31 January 2019

Last year was a "positive year for nuclear power" according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA). And indeed it was, compared to 2017, which was one of the industry's worst-ever years.

The WNA cited nuclear power's net gain in 2018 (nine reactor grid connections compared to six permanent shutdowns). A superficial look at the numbers suggests some more good news for the industry. The number of reactor grid connections (start-ups) over the past five years (38) almost doubled the number in the five years before that (21). If the number doubled again, the much-hyped nuclear renaissance would be upon us.

A casual observer might also be impressed by the fact that the number of reactor grid connections and construction starts over the past decade exceeded the number of permanent reactor shutdowns.


And some more good news for the industry: according to the WNA, 41 reactors will enter commercial operation in the four years from 2019-22. But after that, the pre-Fukushima mini-renaissance (38 reactor construction starts from 2008-2010) slows dramatically with an estimated total of just nine reactor start-ups in the following four years.

Ominously for the industry, the 22 construction starts from 2014-18 was less than half the number (49) from 2009-13.

The (independent) World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) noted in early January that 49 reactors are under construction worldwide -  the first time the number has fallen below 50 in a decade, down 19 since 2013, and the number has decreased for five years in a row.

If all these contradictory good-news, bad-news figures seem a little … contradictory, that's because nuclear power currently reflects two opposing dynamics: the mini-renaissance is evident but will subside by the mid-2020s, and the Era of Nuclear Decommissioning (discussed later) has begun and will be in sharp focus by the mid-2020s.

By contrast, renewable power generation continues to expand rapidly and costs continue to fall dramatically. Renewables accounted for 26.5 percent of global electricity generation in 2017 compared to nuclear power's 10.3 percent.


Ageing reactor fleet

The industry faces severe problems, not least the ageing of the global reactor fleet. The average age of the fleet continues to rise and reached 30 years in mid-2018. A reasonable estimate is that the average lifespan of the current reactor fleet will be about 40 years.

There will likely be an average of 8-11 permanent reactor shutdowns annually over the next few decades:

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About the Author

Dr Jim Green is the editor of the Nuclear Monitor newsletter and the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia.

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