Sunday, June 09, 2019

Alarm bell on decline of nuclear power way too late

Recently, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that neglect of the world's nuclear electric generating plants would lead to a precipitous decline in climate-friendly nuclear energy production around the world.

The agency, a consortium of 30 countries which monitors energy developments worldwide, said 25 percent of nuclear capacity could be lost by 2025 and two-thirds by 2040. The cause is clear. Little new capacity is being built and much of the current fleet of reactors is nearing the end of its lifespan.

The IEA's warning comes about a decade too late. That's because the timeline for planning and building nuclear power plants can be that long.

More than 10 years ago I wrote a piece called "The Nuclear Future That Never Arrived." In it I explained why I believed the time for nuclear power development had come and gone.

Since then we've had the Fukushima disaster after which talk of a nuclear renaissance ceased. In fact, some countries, notably Germany, decided to retire its nuclear power stations. But Sweden and Japan have since reversed course on a similar decision.

The schizophrenia on nuclear power has to do with two things according to the IEA. First, generating electricity from nuclear plants produces very little greenhouse gas compared to fossil fuel-fired plants. (Nuclear plants, of course, require service vehicles and delivery trucks. And, there is uranium mining and processing.) Nuclear's nearly carbon-free energy is important in the context of climate change.

Second, the cost of building renewable energy generation considerably exceeds the marginal cost of keeping existing nuclear plants running longer.  And, that's what some nations are choosing to do. In the United States, several original 40-year licenses are being extended to 60 years.

But, none of this is likely to matter for several reasons. First, the safest thing a nuclear regulator can say is "no." That tendency slows down approval and deployment of new, safer designs. It also makes regulators reluctant to extend the lives of reactors if they have any hesitancy at all.

Second, the timelines for planning and building nuclear plants can be decades. Given the difficult history of such plants which includes vast cost overruns, negative public attitudes about nuclear power, and the vicissitudes of regulators over many government administrations, few utilities are willing to undertake the task.

Third, repairs needed to shore up the aging fleet of existing reactors are sometimes too costly and operators are choosing for economic reasons to shut reactors down. Sweden is facing just such a situation right now.

Fourth, a significant accident at a nuclear plant has the potential to destroy the financial viability and independence of a utility despite any government liability limits or implied guarantees of direct aid in case of a nuclear catastrophe.

In the 10 years since I suggested that the opportunity for a nuclear energy-based economy had come and gone, the circumstances for the industry have only gotten worse—worse than even I foresaw back then. It's hard now to believe that the United States government predicted back in 1962 that half of all electricity in the country would be produced by nuclear reactors by the year 2000 and that all new power plants after that would be nuclear. Today, the percentage of electricity generated by nuclear power in the United States stands at about 20 percent, a percentage that has remained nearly steady since the early 1990s.

And so, an energy source that was once imagined to be the long-term replacement for fossil fuels is now in the equivalent of an old-age home. What is more disturbing is that the other candidates for replacing fossil fuels—renewables, which the BP Statistical Review of World Energy defines as wind, geothermal, solar, biomass and waste—still only provide energy for 3.6 percent of total world consumption.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Novafp said...

It’s not clear that nuclear power is low carbon on a lifecycle basis. The fossil energy and CO2 generation from the massive amount of cement and steel needed for construction , plus the energy and resources needed to decommission the plants in the future, suggest that there are few net benefits from nuclear energy.
Dick Vodra

swlawrence said...

Actually, the largest FF input to the nuclear fuel cycle occurs during uranium enrichment. And decommissioning of the reactor is not the only necessary sequestration of radwaste required. There are hundreds + hundreds of nuclear mining + tailing sites not appropriately managed in the US, resulting in wind + waterborne dispersal of contaminants. Again financial challenges would need to be met, + significant FF inputs required to ultimately make this good.
The US used to have 121 commercial electricity-generating nuclear plants in operation; now we are down to 99 and heading further south.
Globally nuclear electricity peaked at a 17.6% share in 1996 + as of 2018 was down to 11%.
Inarguble now that this is a dying industry not just in the US but worldwide.
There are other arguments against nuclear power [diversion of special nuclear material, routes to bomb production by nation-states, vulnerable targets for conventional weapon attacks, cyber-insecurity + so forth]. But the decline of this industry opens up financing for all the renewable infrastructure + efficiency improvements [negawatts + flexiwatts] that we can build so much more easily, cheaply + faster.

Robin Datta said...

Pressurized hot water reactors come with the risks and consequences of meltdowns. Meltdown is an essential feature of molten salt reactors; if turned off, the salt cools and solidifies, and the reaction stops. When turned on again the salt melts and the reaction restarts. As happened with the one experimental molten salt reactor. If designed to use thorium, which is plentiful and now a waste by-product of mining operations, they can also burn the wastes from the spent fuel of "conventional " reactors, and most importantly, they cannot go Fuke.

Unknown said...

You realize there are almost 100 new reactors under construction or committed to construction around the world. China,India leading the way. They realize they can’t keep killing there people with coal and gas burning power generation. 20% of electricity in the USA is produced by nuclear. That is 1 of every ten homes. That’s a lot wouldn’t you agree.

Diaconu Radu Ionut said...

I think the biggest issue for nuclear are: permits, hard to get; capital, harder to find every day, cause Wall Street wants their money back fast; uranium...reserves are limited and once production byebye.
Same story actually with all energy related industries: we are too late thinking of conservation and better utilisation of resources and waste management...almost all mineral and energy related mining production will peak in the next 20 years...
So..Party is over!
Have a nice day!

ChemEng said...

Many nuclear power plants, like Fukushima-Daiichi, are built at or close to the coast. What protection do they have against rising sea levels and storm surges, both of which will be increasingly serious challenges in coming years?

It is impractical to move existing plants to higher ground, and, even if a nuclear plant is shut down, it still presents a threat if it is flooded.

Chris Harries said...

In my experience there is much more fear of nuclear energy than there is of climate change. The nuclear word is heavily loaded. Has been since the Cold War era. This fear is based on reality to some extent but in a risk-versus-risk analysis of future options the public much prefers a (near certain) climate meltdown to a (possible) nuclear one.

The other factor is that for most people they see sparkling solar panels and wind turbines everywhere, whereas safe nuclear energy is like fiction because there's no hardware out there for them to see. Seeing is what you believe.

Whether for or against nukes, it's now way too late to turn this sentiment around with the negative time we've now got to act.