Nuclear Faces ‘Deep Financial Crisis’ as Construction Lags, Renewables Surge
The world’s nuclear utilities are facing a “deep financial crisis,” with the industry in decline in all but a handful of countries led by China, researchers Mycle Schneider and Anthony Froggatt conclude in the latest edition of their annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report.
The report notes that the number of nuclear plants under construction around the world has been falling for four years, from 68 at the end of 2013 to 53 in mid-2017. Of those, 20 are in China. New construction starts were down to three in 2016—two in China, one in Pakistan initiated by a Chinese company—down from 15 in 2010. So far this year, only a single new nuclear construction project has broken ground, in India.
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While global nuclear power generation increased 1.4% in 2016—driven by a 23% rise in China—nuclear’s share of total electricity generation world-wide essentially held steady at 10.5%. By comparison, the report notes, solar and wind generation grew by 30 and 16%, respectively, with renewables accounting for 62% of the world’s new electricity generating capacity.
Based on costs, “new renewables beat existing nuclear,” the report notes. “Renewable energy auctions achieved record low prices at and below US$30/MWh in Chile, Mexico, Morocco, United Arab Emirates, and the United States. Average generating costs of amortized nuclear power plants in the U.S. were US$35.5 in 2015.”
Meanwhile, “nuclear electricity generation worldwide, after dropping by 264 TWh (10%) following the 3/11 [disaster] in Fukushima, Japan, has increased moderately but continuously and added 130 TWh since 2012. In other words, in the five years after the disaster, nuclear generation recovered only about half of the lost production.”
Last year, “nuclear generation increased in 15 countries, declined in 12, and remained stable in four,” the researchers add. “Seven countries (China, Hungary, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa) achieved their greatest nuclear production in 2016,” and “of these, China, India, Pakistan, and Russia connected new reactors to the grid. China started up five units, half of the world’s total. Besides China, five other countries increased their output by more than 20%”: Belgium, Iran, Japan, Pakistan, and South Africa.
Still, the “big five” nuclear generators—the U.S., France, China, Russia, and South Korea—accounted for 70% of global output.
In addition to the cost and operational issues facing many nuclear operators, the report points to the rising age of installed nuclear capacity—the average vintage of the world’s reactors stood at 29.3 years in mid-2017, more than half of all reactors had been in operation for 31 years or more, and 64 of those had run for at least 41 years.
“If all currently operating reactors were shut down at the end of a 40-year lifetime—with the exception of the 72 that have passed the 40-year mark—by 2020 the number of operating units would be 11 below the total at the end of 2016, even if all reactors currently under active construction were completed,” the report notes. “The installed capacity, however, would increase by 4 GW, because many of the older units have lower power outputs when compared to most of the reactors currently under construction.”
The global survey sees no prospect of new nuclear construction in Canada through 2040, with the National Energy Board projecting a decline by that year from 98 to 77 terawatt-hours of generation. Not surprisingly, that conclusion is based on costs: When Ontario invited bids for two new reactors at its Darlington generating station in 2008, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. came in with a bid of C$26 billion (before the inevitable cost overruns)—three times what the province hoped to spend.
“Instead, the Ontario government has supported refurbishment of the older heavy water reactors,” Schneider and colleagues write. “The task involves the removal and replacement of hundreds of highly radioactive pressure tubes from the reactor core, as well as the replacement of other life-limiting components, such as steam generators, and the upgrading of plant systems to meet modern regulatory requirements. All the four reactor units at the Darlington nuclear station and units 3 to 8 at the Bruce nuclear power station are due to undergo refurbishment.”
The Ontario Clean Air Alliance is arguing that a power purchase agreement for existing hydro from Quebec would cost far less than the nuclear refurbishments, and immediate decommissioning of Ontario’s Pickering generating station would create plenty of transitional jobs for the province’s nuclear work force.