Nuclear power generation declined in 2021 and the industry’s future is grimmer than it has ever been.
The marginal decline makes for a striking contrast with renewables. The International Energy Agency calculates that new renewable capacity added in 2021 amounted to nearly 290 GW – that’s more than four times Australia’s total electricity generating capacity.
Nuclear power’s contribution to global electricity supply has fallen from a peak of 17.5 percent in 1996 to 10.1 percent in 2020. Renewables reached an estimated 29 per cent share of global electricity generation in 2020, a record share.
The ageing of the world’s reactor fleet is a huge problem for the nuclear industry, as is the ageing of its workforce — the silver tsunami. The average age of the world’s reactor fleet continues to rise and by mid-2021 reached 30.9 years. The mean age of the 23 reactors shut down between 2016 and 2020 was 42.6 years.
Primarily because of the ageing of the reactor fleet, the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates up to 139 GW of lost nuclear capacity from 2018-2030 due to permanent reactor shutdowns, and a further loss of up to 186 GW from 2030-2050.
So the industry needs about 10 new power reactors (or 10 GW) each year just to maintain its 30-year pattern of stagnation. And there were indeed 10 reactor construction starts in 2021, six of them in China.
But the average annual number of construction starts since 2014 has been just 5.1. Thus, slow decline of nuclear power is the most likely outcome. An extension of the 30-year pattern of stagnation is possible, if and only if China does the heavy lifting. China has averaged just 2.5 reactor construction starts per year since 2011.
Phasing out nuclear power
The number of countries phasing out nuclear power steadily grows and now includes:
Germany: Fourteen reactors have shut down since the 2011 Fukushima disaster and the final three reactors will close this year.
Belgium: The country’s seven ageing reactors will all be closed by the end of 2025.
Taiwan: Final reactor closure scheduled for 2025. Four reactors were shut down from 2018 to 2021 and only two remain operational.
Spain: Nuclear power capacity is expected to decline from 7.1 GW in 2020 to 3 GW in 2030 with the final reactor closure in 2035.
Switzerland: The government accepted the results of a 2017 referendum which supported a ban on new reactors and thus a gradual phase-out is underway. The Mühleberg reactor was shut down in 2019 and most or all of the remaining four ageing reactors are likely to be shut down over the next decade.
South Korea: Long-term (2060) phase-out policy with concrete actions already taken including the shut-down of the Kori-1 and Wolsong-1 reactors in 2017 and 2019 respectively, and suspension or cancellation of plans for six further reactors. The current plan is to reduce the number of reactors from a peak of 26 in 2024 to 17 in 2034.
Too cheap to meter or too expensive to matter?
Despite the abundance of evidence that nuclear power is hopelessly uncompetitive compared to renewables, the nuclear industry and some of its supporters continue to claim otherwise.
Those economic claims are typically based on implausible cost projections for non-existent ‘Generation IV’ reactor concepts. Moreover, the nuclear lobby’s claims about the cost of renewables are just as ridiculous.
Claims about ‘cheap’ nuclear power certainly don’t consider real-world nuclear construction projects. Every power reactor construction project in Western Europe and the US over the past decade has been a disaster.
The V.C. Summer project in South Carolina (two AP1000 reactors) was abandoned after the expenditure of at least A$12.5 billion leading Westinghouse to file for bankruptcy in 2017. Criminal investigations and prosecutions related to the project are ongoing, and bailout programs to prolong operation of ageing reactors are also mired in corruption.
The only remaining reactor construction project in the US is the Vogtle project in Georgia (two AP1000 reactors). The current cost estimate of A$37.6-41.8 billion is twice the estimate when construction began. Costs continue to increase and the project only survives because of multi-billion-dollar taxpayer bailouts. The project is six years behind schedule.
In 2006, Westinghouse said it could build an AP1000 reactor for as little as A$2.0 billion, 10 times lower than the current estimate for Vogtle.
The Watts Bar 2 reactor in Tennessee began operation in 2016, 43 years after construction began. That is the only power reactor start-up in the US over the past quarter-century. The previous start-up was Watts Bar 1, completed in 1996 after a 23-year construction period.
In 2021, TVA abandoned the unfinished Bellefonte nuclear plant in Alabama, 47 years after construction began and following the expenditure of an estimated A$8.1 billion.
There have been no other power reactor construction projects in the US over the past 25 years other than those listed above. Numerous other reactor projects were abandoned before construction began, some following the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars.
The only current reactor construction project in France is one EPR reactor under construction at Flamanville. The current cost estimate of A$30.1 billion — yes, over A$30 billion — is 5.8 times greater than the original estimate. The Flamanville reactor is 10 years behind schedule.
The only reactor construction project in the UK comprises two EPR reactors under construction at Hinkley Point. In the late 2000s, the estimated construction cost for one EPR reactor in the UK was A$3.8 billion. The current cost estimate for two EPR reactors at Hinkley Point is A$41.6-43.5 billion, over five times greater than the initial estimate of A$3.8 billion per reactor.
In 2007, EDF boasted that Britons would be using electricity from an EPR reactor at Hinkley Point to cook their Christmas turkeys in 2017, but construction didn’t even begin until 2018.
One EPR reactor (Olkiluoto-3) is under construction in Finland. The current cost estimate of about A$17.4 billion is 3.7 times greater than the original estimate. Olkiluoto-3 is 13 years behind schedule.
Nuclear power is growing in a few countries, but only barely. China is said to be the industry’s shining light but nuclear growth has been modest over the past decade and it is paltry compared to renewables (2 GW of nuclear power capacity added in 2020 compared to 135 GW of renewables).
Small modular reactors
Small modular reactors (SMRs) are heavily promoted but construction projects are few and far between and have exhibited disastrous cost overruns and multi-year delays.
It should be noted that none of the projects discussed below meet the ‘modular’ definition of serial factory production of reactor components, which could potentially drive down costs. Using that definition, no SMRs have ever been built and no country, company or utility is building the infrastructure for SMR construction.
In 2004, when the CAREM SMR in Argentina was in the planning stage, Argentina’s Bariloche Atomic Center estimated an overnight cost of A$1.4 billion / GW for an integrated 300 megawatt (MW) plant, while acknowledging that to achieve such a cost would be a “very difficult task”. Now, the cost estimate is more than 20 times greater at A$32.6 billion / GW. A little over A$1 billion for a reactor with a capacity of just 32 MW. The project is seven years behind schedule and costs will likely increase further.
Russia’s 70 MW floating nuclear power plant is said to be the only operating SMR anywhere in the world (although it doesn’t fit the ‘modular’ definition of serial factory production). The construction cost increased six-fold from 6 billion rubles to 37 billion rubles (A$688 million), equivalent to A$9.8 billion / GW. The construction project was nine years behind schedule.
According to the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency, electricity produced by the Russian floating plant costs an estimated A$279 / MWh, with the high cost due to large staffing requirements, high fuel costs, and resources required to maintain the barge and coastal infrastructure. The cost of electricity produced by the Russian plant exceeds costs from large reactors (A$182-284) even though SMRs are being promoted as the solution to the exorbitant costs of large nuclear plants.
SMRs are being promoted as important potential contributors to climate change abatement but the primary purpose of the Russian plant is to power fossil fuel mining operations in the Arctic.
A 2016 report said that the estimated construction cost of China’s demonstration 210 MW high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) is about A$7.0 billion / GW and that cost increases have arisen from higher material and component costs, increases in labour costs, and project delays. The World Nuclear Association states that the cost is A$8.4 billion / GW. Those figures are 2-3 times higher than the A$2.8 billion / GW estimate in a 2009 paper by Tsinghua University researchers.
China’s HTGR was partially grid-connected in late-2021 and full connection will take place in early 2022.
China reportedly plans to upscale the HTGR design to 655 MW (three reactor modules feeding one turbine). China’s Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology at Tsinghua University expects the cost of a 655 MW HTGR will be 15-20 percent higher than the cost of a conventional 600 MW pressurised water reactor.
NucNet reported in 2020 that China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corp dropped plans to manufacture 20 additional HTGR units after levelised cost of electricity estimates rose to levels higher than a conventional pressurised water reactor such as China’s indigenous Hualong One. Likewise, the World Nuclear Association states that plans for 18 additional HTGRs at the same site as the demonstration plant have been “dropped”.
The World Nuclear Association lists just two other SMR construction projects other than those listed above. In July 2021, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) New Energy Corporation began construction of the 125 MW pressurised water reactor ACP100. According to CNNC, construction costs per kilowatt will be twice the cost of large reactors, and the levelised cost of electricity will be 50 percent higher than large reactors.
In June 2021, construction of the 300 MW demonstration lead-cooled BREST fast reactor began in Russia. In 2012, the estimated cost for the reactor and associated facilities was A$780 million, but the cost estimate has more than doubled and now stands at A$1.9 billion.
Much more could be said about the proliferation of SMRs in the ‘planning’ stage, and the accompanying hype. For example a recent review asserts that more than 30 demonstrations of ‘advanced’ reactor designs are in progress across the globe. In fact, few have progressed beyond the planning stage, and few will. Private-sector funding has been scant and taxpayer funding has generally been well short of that required for SMR construction projects to proceed.
Large taxpayer subsidies might get some projects, such as the NuScale project in the US or the Rolls-Royce mid-sized reactor project in the UK, to the construction stage. Or they may join the growing list of abandoned SMR projects.
A failed history of small reactor projects. A handful of recent construction projects, most subject to major cost overruns and multi-year delays. And the possibility of a small number of SMR construction projects over the next decade. Clearly the hype surrounding SMRs lacks justification.
Everything that is promising about SMRs belongs in the never-never; everything in the real-world is expensive and over-budget, slow and behind schedule. Moreover, there are disturbing, multifaceted connections between SMR projects and nuclear weapons proliferation, and between SMRs and fossil fuel mining.
SMRs for Australia
There is ongoing promotion of SMRs in Australia but a study by WSP / Parsons Brinckerhoff, commissioned by the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, estimated costs of A$225 / MWh for SMRs. The Minerals Council of Australia states that SMRs won’t find a market unless they can produce power at about one-third of that cost.
In its 2021 GenCost report, CSIRO provides these 2030 cost estimates:
* Nuclear (SMR): A$128-322 / MWh
* 90 percent wind and solar PV with integration costs (transmission, storage and synchronous condensers): A$55-80 / MWh
Enthusiasts hope that nuclear power’s cost competitiveness will improve, but in all likelihood it will continue to worsen. Alone among energy sources, nuclear power becomes more expensive over time, or in other words it has a negative learning curve.