Nuclear Power’s Renaissance in Reverse

Last June, Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, declared that “nuclear power will make a significant and growing contribution to sustainable development in the coming decades.” But recent trends paint a very different picture.

PARIS – Last June, Yukiya Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), declared that “nuclear power will make a significant and growing contribution to sustainable development in the coming decades.” But, as this year’s World Nuclear Industry Status Report highlights, recent trends paint a very different picture.

Duke Energy, America’s largest utility, has shelved plans to build two reactors in Florida, after having spent $1 billion on the project. The decision came only three months after the company abandoned investment in two new units in North Carolina.

In fact, this year, four American utilities have decided to shut down a total of five reactors permanently – the first closures in the United States in 15 years. One of the units – Kewaunee Power Station in Wisconsin – was abandoned after massive investment in upgrades and a 60-year license renewal; it simply could not generate power at competitive prices. For the same reasons, Vermont Yankee, another plant with a license to operate through 2032, is now scheduled to close in 2014.

Similarly, the world’s largest nuclear operator – the French state-controlled utility Électricité de France – announced its impending withdrawal from nuclear power in the US, after having sunk roughly $2 billion into aborted projects. And, in order to help offset soaring operating costs, which resulted in losses of €1.5 billion ($2 billion) last year, EDF will raise electricity prices this year for its French customers by 5%, on average, and by another 5% next year.

Over the five years ending in March 2013, EDF lost 85% of its share value. Likewise, the world’s largest nuclear builder – the French state-controlled company AREVA – lost up to 88% of its share value between 2008 and 2012. Not surprisingly, investors have welcomed new strategic plans by both companies, as well as EDF’s withdrawal from the US market; the downward pressure on their share prices has eased, though for how long remains to be seen.

The nuclear-energy industry’s decline began decades ago. But, since the March 2011 triple-meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, the pace of the decline has accelerated significantly. Indeed, in 2012, annual nuclear generation worldwide dropped by an unprecedented 7%, exceeding the previous year’s record-breaking drop of 4% and bringing total annual nuclear-power generation to 12% below its historic maximum, achieved in 2006.

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Although Japan accounts for three-quarters of this decline, with only two of the 50 units that are officially in operation in Japan actually producing power, 16 other countries, including the world’s top five nuclear generators, also decreased their output. As a result, nuclear power’s share of global electricity generation dropped to around 10% in 2012, compared to its 1993 peak of 17%. Only the Czech Republic reached its historic maximum nuclear share last year.

Moreover, of the 66 reactors under construction worldwide, two-thirds are located in just three countries – China, India, and Russia – with China alone accounting for 28. Nine of the 66 have been listed as “under construction” for more than two decades. (The Watts Bar 2 reactor in Tennessee holds the record, having been under construction for 41 years.) An additional four projects have been underway for more than ten years.

In total, at least 23 of the 66 units currently under construction have encountered delays, many of which have lasted for several years. Whether the other projects, all of which have been initiated in the past five years, are on schedule remains to be seen. As a result of such delays, only three new units began operating last year – half the number of reactors that were shut down. The average age of the world’s reactor fleet now stands at 28 years, and continues to increase steadily.

By contrast, new renewable technologies are gaining traction, illustrating a fundamental shift in international energy policy and investment strategies. Last year, China, Germany, Japan, and India generated more power from renewables than from nuclear for the first time. In China and India, wind alone outpaced nuclear.

Since 2000, global onshore wind-power generation has averaged 27% annual growth, while the growth rate for solar photovoltaics has been a staggering 42%. Last year, an additional 45 GW of wind and 32 GW of solar were installed worldwide, compared to a net addition of 1.2 GW of nuclear.

The shift to renewables has been particularly pronounced in the world’s major advanced economies. For example, Germany’s ongoing nuclear phase-out has been complemented by accelerated renewables implementation, with up to 3,000 MW of solar photovoltaic capacity connected to Germany’s power grid in a single month. As a result, the price per installed solar kilowatt has dropped by three-quarters over the last seven years.

Even in the US, where cheap shale gas is reshaping the energy industry, more wind power was connected to the grid last year than gas, and, in the first three months of this year, more than 80% of new capacity was renewable.

Over the past decade, the nuclear industry has attempted to capture global leaders’ attention with a promotional campaign centered around the notion of a “nuclear renaissance.” But their promises – including investment costs of $1,000 per installed kilowatt and building times of four years – have proved to be false.

Indeed, since the industry launched its public-relations campaign in the early 2000’s, cost estimates have increased roughly sevenfold, and profits have declined. The 34 reactors that started up over the last decade had a mean construction time of nearly ten years, but contributed just 26 GW – one-third of what solar and wind added in one year.

The IAEA’s optimistic rhetoric cannot obscure fundamental arithmetic: skyrocketing maintenance expenses and, in many cases, post-Fukushima upgrade costs, together with the impossibility of building competitive new capacity without massive government subsidies, are devastating the nuclear industry. As the economist Mark Cooper has put it, nuclear power is actually undergoing a “renaissance in reverse.”