Global investment in new nuclear is an order of magnitude less than renewable energy investment. That is just one of the findings of a new independent report on the state of the worldwide nuclear industry that was issued on Thursday. No matter which aspect of the nuclear industry is assessed, the picture isn't pretty.
Despite talk of a nuclear renaissance in the 1990s, no single Generation III reactor has come into service in the past 20 years. Most are delayed three to nine years and are far over budget.
“The impressively resilient hopes that many people still have of a global nuclear renaissance are being trumped by a real‐time revolution in efficiency‐plus‐renewables‐plus-storage, delivering more and more solutions on the ground every year,” Jonathon Porritt, co-founder of the Forum for the Future and former Chairman of the U.K. Sustainable Development Commission, wrote in the forward to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2015. “[The report] remorselessly lays bare the gap between the promise of innovation in the nuclear industry and its delivered results.”
China, which leads the world in new nuclear builds, spent about $9 billion in 2014, but invested more than $83 billion on wind and solar in the same year. China’s non-hydro renewable fleet produces more energy than its nuclear capacity.
What's more, Germany, Brazil, India, Mexico, the Netherlands, Spain and Japan all generate more electricity from non-hydro renewables than from nuclear. Those countries make up nearly half of the world’s population and three of the world’s largest economies.
For nuclear that is being built, the word "boondoggle" seems to come up frequently, especially in the West. “The project is in shambles,” the report said of the U.K.’s Hinkley Point C reactor, which was meant to be the first new nuclear in the country in decades. Now, the company building it, Areva, is bankrupt. Areva’s Olkiluoto 3 project in Finland and Flamanville 3 in France are also both way over budget and still not in operation.
“What is spectacular is the extent to which the nuclear industry is appearing to ignore reality,” the report states. In 2013, Areva’s then-CEO predicted reactors would be coming back on-line in Japan by the end of the year and that his company would be taking new orders in the next few years. In 2015, Japan has been nuclear-free for the first time in more than four decades. Areva has had no new orders.
Despite the issues with Areva reactors, there are more than 60 reactors currently under construction. Of those reactors, most have been under construction for more than seven years. Three-quarters of the building sites are delayed and, amazingly, five have been listed as “under construction” for more than 30 years.
For the reactors that are in operation, many are aging rapidly. The mean age for reactors worldwide is about 29 years, and most were designed for life spans of 40 years, but many will operate beyond that. The cost of going beyond 40 years isn’t cheap -- about $1 billion to $5 billion per reactor. By 2050, nuclear's share of global electricity generation is expected to be similar to its role today, which amounts to about 10 percent.
Given the cost and time necessary to build large reactors, many in the industry have argued for a move to small modular reactors. Yet SMRs have also suffered from higher-than-expected costs and long development timelines, the report states.
The U.S. Department of Energy has been one of the proponents of this technology, yet none of the designs it said in 2001 could be available by the end of the decade were deployed. Of the two companies the DOE chose years later for SMR development funding, one slashed its spending on SMRs in 2014. NuScale, the other SMR manufacturer, is still continuing with development. Even so, “there is no evidence that SMRs will be constructed in the United States anytime soon,” the report states.
The picture is not rosier in other countries that have lent support to SMRs. South Korea, for example, has been developing an SMR since the 1990s, and while it was approved in 2012, no orders have yet been received. Saudi Arabia did say earlier this year it would test the technology in a three-year pilot.
“The static, top-heavy, monstrously expensive world of nuclear power has less and less to deploy against today’s increasingly agile, dynamic, cost-effective alternatives,” wrote Porritt. “The sole remaining issue is that not everyone sees it that way -- as yet.”