There’s Still A Future For Nuclear Power

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By Irina Slav

The world is consuming ever-growing amounts of energy, and consumption is set for a particularly intensive growth in electricity. Put simply, people are going to need more electricity in the years to come as we shift away from fossil fuels. This fast growth will require more generation capacity, some of which will be nuclear. In fact, according to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear power generation capacity may grow to 511 GW(e) by 2030 from 392 GW(e) in 2017, and further to 748 GW(e) by 2050.

This is the high case scenario outlined in IAEA’s Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the period up to 2050 report that came out this week. In the low case scenario, global nuclear capacity would shrink to 352 GW(e) by 2030 but will inch up later, reaching 356 GW(e) by 2050. In other words, nuclear will continue taking part in the generating electricity for an increasingly electricity-hungry planet and the worst that can happen is that it loses some ground to natural gas and renewables.

The IAEA notes in the report that cheap natural gas and subsidized renewables are the top factors that act as deterrents to nuclear capacity growth, along with policies following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Nuclear still has a bad reputation despite the fact it is virtually emission-free. This reputation is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Additional challenges for the nuclear power industry are also present: construction costs are higher because of stricter safety standards, and as a consequence, construction times are longer and overall project costs are higher, reducing the competitiveness of new nuclear plants. The twist is that the world still needs and will continue to need nuclear energy despite the rise of renewables. In fact, some of the countries with the most ambitious environmental goals in the world are also some of the biggest nuclear power consumers.

At the same time, many nuclear plants are being closed because they have reached the end of their productive lives. More than 50 percent of reactors, the IAEA said in its report, are already scheduled for retirement in the coming years. Yet in the high case scenario, some of these might receive extensions to ensure enough electricity is being produced as demand grows by 2.5 percent annually until 2030, twice the annual growth rate of total energy demand. In the low case scenario, some 139 GW(e) existing nuclear capacity will be retired by 2030 with only 99 GW(e) of new capacity added during that period.

Nuclear is not hot, despite proponents arguing its case as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. But the IAEA’s report is not even the most pessimistic one. Another recent document on the subject of nuclear energy, the Nuclear Industry Status Report compiled annually by an independent French energy expert, Mycle Schneider, sees a gloomy future for nuclear.

The share of nuclear power generation in the total global mix has already fallen from 17.5 percent in 1996 to 10.3 percent last year, and it will fall further, challenged by renewables. Yet, according to this report, renewables as such are not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that nuclear power is becoming uneconomical as the costs of alternative energy sources fall, at least in some parts of the world, such as in Europe and the United States. China has grand nuclear plant plans, but some of the nuclear projects there are falling behind schedule, Schneider points out. So, nuclear may not be going anywhere, but whether it can grow will depend on electricity demand and the ability of the nuclear power industry to improve its cost competitiveness with its rivals.

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