"The nuclear share in the world’s power generation declined steadily from a historic peak of 17.6 percent in 1996 to 10.8 percent in 2013."

 The sun is setting on nuclear power

This year’s numbers for the nuclear industry are in and they’re not good for the industry but good if you worry about the safety of people.

 The annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report (“The Independent Assessment of Nuclear Developments in the World”) has just been released and has this to say…

The nuclear industry is in decline: The 388 operating reactors are 50 fewer than the peak in 2002, while the total installed capacity peaked in 2010 at 367 GW before declining to the current level, which is comparable to levels last seen two decades ago. […] The nuclear share of the world’s power generation declined steadily from a historic peak of  17.6 percent in 1996 to 10.8 percent in 20137. Nuclear power’s share of global commercial primary energy production declined from the 2012 low of 4.5 percent, a level last seen in 1984, to a new low of 4.4 percent.

Fifty fewer reactors are operating right now, so at least all the people living in their vicinity are better off.

When this blog was started in 2008, all the talk from the nuclear industry and its supporters was of the forthcoming nuclear “renaissance” – a boom in the construction of new nuclear reactors after years of stagnation.

The World Nuclear Association’s upper ‘outlook projection’ envisaged 11,000 new nuclear reactors being built by the end of the century. That meant starting to build a new reactor every three days.

Six years later and the World Nuclear Industry Status Report proves what a wildly over-optimistic fantasy that was…

As of July 2014, 67 reactors were under construction (one more than in July 2013) with a total capacity of 64 GW. The average building time of the units under construction stands at 7 years. However:

• Eight reactors have been listed as “under construction” for more than 20 years, another for 12 years.

• At least 49 have encountered construction delays, most of them significant (several months to several years). For the first time, major delays—several months to over two years—have been admitted on three quarters (21/28) of the construction projects in China.

• For the remaining 18 reactor units, either construction began within the past five years or the reactors have not yet reached projected start-up dates, making it difficult or impossible to assess whether they are on schedule or not.

• Two-thirds (43) of the units under construction are located in three countries: China, India and Russia.

The average construction time of the last 37 units that started up in nine countries since 2004 was 10 years with a large range from 3.8 to 36.3 years.

These days, you’re more likely to read a news article asking “whatever happened to the nuclear renaissance?” than one singing its praises.

And what of nuclear power vs renewable energy? For years the nuclear industry and its boosters said renewable energy would never work on a large scale.

When solar and wind power started getting cheaper, more efficient and coming online faster and faster, that opinion changed to renewables and nuclear should work together as part of the global energy mix.

The report debunks that argument as well.

The report discusses baseload, which is the amount of electricity that “must be served at all times of the day”. The old argument for nuclear and against renewables goes that nuclear reactors are on all the time and so can serve electricity all the time. Renewables on the other hand, it is said, are reliant on the sun shining and the wind blowing.

Over to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report…

[B]ig thermal plants running whenever they’re available are replaced by cheaper-to-run portfolios of renewables, mostly variable renewables, that add up to “virtual baseload” supply—collectively providing reliable electricity from a shifting mix of resources. This way of operating the grid is analogous to a symphony orchestra (as Rocky Mountain Institute’s Clay Stranger puts it): no instrument plays all the time, but with a good score and conductor, beautiful music is continuously produced. This approach is unfamiliar to traditional utilities, but it works.

And so the reasons for nuclear power’s continued existence evaporate. It’s in decline and isn’t building reactors fast enough to meet extravagant targets. It’s being beaten all over the world by renewable energy, which is safer, cheaper, and easier and faster to build.

What trust there was in nuclear was smashed by the Fukushima disaster, with the industry doing little or nothing to try and claw it back.

The World Nuclear Industry Status Report shows that trying to rebuild that trust, as well as building new nuclear reactors, is utterly pointless.

[Image: The Mochovce Nuclear Power Plant. Construction started on the Mochovce Nuclear Power Plant in the 1980s but was subsequently stopped due to financial concerns. The project restarted in the 1990s and the first two towers (2 x 470MW) were finished and brought on-line in 1998 and 1999. The Slovak government insists in pursuing this project despite old technology and several security concerns. 09/05/2012 © Tomas Halasz / Greenpeace]

Justin McKeating is a nuclear blogger for Greenpeace International, based in the UK.