Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

Nuclear is generating less of world's power; renewables are accelerating

The cooling tower of the nuclear power plant near Leibstadt, Switzerland.
REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
The cooling tower of the nuclear power plant near the northern Swiss town Leibstadt.

At best, nuclear power accounted for only 10.8 percent of the world's electricity last year — down from a peak of 17.6 percent in 1996 — and faces a difficult future in at least the short term because the world's reactor fleet is aging, while new projects are burdened by high costs and construction delays.

So says last week's World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2014, which so far is getting more attention in business and power-industry publications than in general media.

The report's chief author is Mycle Schneider, an analyst who has also been an activist on matters of nuclear energy and proliferation (opposing both) and who sees no conflict when scientists also engage on issues as citizens.

This year's report, part of an annual series, was underwritten in part by the Rocky Mountain Institute of Snowmass, Colorado — known for its well-researched, science- and economics-based advocacy of renewable energy systems — and the German Green Party.

Schneider's credentials and sponsorships may be cause enough for some to dismiss his conclusions out of hand. But I think it's interesting to note  that his consulting clients have included the International Atomic Energy Agency, the French and German environment ministries, the Belgian energy ministry and members of the European Parliament.

The IAEA has distributed his reports in the past; some have been reprinted in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This year's report has gained attention from U.S. News & World Report, hardly a journal for lefty, anti-nuke bunny-huggers, as well as Power, concerned with "business and technology for the global generation industry."

And Power's take on the Schneider analysis, by the way, is that the true decline is even steeper than stated above. It leads with statistics putting nuclear's share of "global commercial primary energy production" — which does sound like the thing you'd really want to measure — at 4.4 percent last year, "a level not seen since 1984."

Count mothballed plants, or not?

Power takes issue, however, with Schneider's most interesting, and perhaps most controversial finding, that "the 388 operating reactors worldwide are 50 fewer than the peak achieved in 2002. The number is misleading, though, because much of the reduction is due to Japan’s nuclear program being in a state of 'long-term outage' (LTO) since the Fukushima disaster."

Other points that Power's Aaron Larson felt were worth noting but not challenging (lightly compressed):

  • The average age of the world’s operating nuclear fleet has increased to 28.5 years with over 10% of the total having operated for over 40 years.
  • While 67 reactors are under construction in 14 different countries, at least 49 of them have encountered construction delays, with eight being “under construction” for more than 20 years.
  • “Newcomer countries” have seen delays in development, with Belarus the only nation to have "an actual construction project" while Bangladesh, Jordan, Lithuania, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Vietnam aren't that far along as yet.
  • Capital costs for construction have escalated from roughly $1,000 per installed kilowatt a decade ago to what is expected to be around $8,000 per installed kilowatt for two new units at the Hinkley Point facility in the UK.

From a separate piece in Power, I learned how the Japanese are making up for lost fission: a little more oil, a lot more coal and liquefied natural gas; nuclear's share has fallen from 50 percent to 1 percent and renewables have actually gone down, from 20 percent to 9. But in other countries, or "wind and solar seem to be winning the battle [with nuclear] for new capacity."

In 2013 alone, 37 gigawatts of solar and 32 GW of wind capacity were added throughout the world. In contrast, nuclear capacity has declined by 19 GW since 2000. Again, much of that decrease is due to Japanese reactors being placed in LTO, but even with those reactors considered operational, nuclear capacity would only have increased 17.5 GW during the 14-year period.

Nuclear power's share of electric-power generation
World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2014
Nuclear power's share of electric-power generation has fallen from peak levels in nearly every nation of the world, according to 2013 and historic data assembled by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

 

The reasoning on long outages

Now, let's have a look at Schneider's reasoning on long-term outages — not just in Japan, by the way, but worldwide, as an indisputably aging fleet increasingly encounters protracted down time.

The world’s nuclear statistics are distorted by an anomaly whose cause is not technical but political. ... With the exception of the six units at Fukushima Daiichi, the entire Japanese reactor fleet of 48 units is considered operating. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) classifies all of these Japanese reactors as “in operation”—11 percent of what the IAEA considers the world nuclear fleet—despite the fact that none of them have generated power since September 2013, only two produced electricity in 2013 and just ten in 2012.

The average outage of these Japanese “operational” units is over three years, as this report documents. In fact, three units have not generated power for the past seven years. To find a more appropriate way to deal with this situation, the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2014 proposes a new category called Long-Term Outage (LTO).

Taking into account reactors in LTO, the number of operational reactors in the world drops by 39 (9 percent) from 427 in July 2013 to 388 in July 2014—50 fewer than at the peak in 2002— and brings world nuclear statistics into closer alignment with reality.

Schneider's own view:

It is time to match the international nuclear statistics to the industrial reality. The introduction of the new category Long-Term Outage more appropriately represents the operational status of nuclear power plants and provides industry analysts, political decision-makers and investors with a tool that mirrors empirical facts rather than wishful thinking.

To qualify as a long-term outage by Schneider's definition, a reactor must have not generated any power in the previous calendar year or first quarter of the current calendar year — that is, 15 months. And besides the many mothballed Japanese reactors, which any fair-minded observer must consider at high risk of staying mothballed in Japan's current state of nuclear dismay, only two others worldwide are on the LTO list, one in South Korea and one in India.

Industry prefers other stats

Neither U.S. News nor Power sought industry comment on the Schneider analysis but — interestingly — Climate Central's blogger Bobby McGill did, and neither spokesman he interviewed actually took issue with Schneider's methods or measures, including LTO. They just prefer different, more nuke-favorable ones:

David Hess, an analyst with the London-based World Nuclear Association, a lobbying group, told Climate Central that he expects nuclear power to grow in Asia in the coming years, primarily in China, India, Russia and South Korea. Nuclear power is essential if the world wants to get serious about addressing climate change and reducing carbon dioxide emissions, Hess said.

Thomas Kauffman, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbying group, in Washington, D.C., said more nuclear reactors are under construction today than at any point since 1989, including five in the U.S., while U.S. nuclear power production has increased this year.

“Does that sound like an industry in decline?” Kauffman told Climate Central. “Of the 30 countries that already use nuclear power, all but a handful are either building new reactors or planning to build new ones. We encourage Mr. Schneider to continue his tally in the years to come, so he can document the world’s increased use of energy to generate reliable, affordable, carbon-free electricity.”

* * *

An executive summary of the report, with links to a downloadable PDF of all 159 pages, can be found here.

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

About the Author:

Comments (15)

Consider the options carefully

Yes, nuclear power has problems and risks but according to renowned climate scientist James Hansen, the world needs a strong nuclear power industry now and in the future to have a good shot at avoiding the most damaging impacts of global warming. We need cleaner and safer nuclear power as well as renewable energy. Nuclear technologies exist to make new plants safer with reduced risks of proliferation and less radioactive waste. Google "James Hansen, nuclear power".

Higher electric costs for the poor and middle class

Wind and Solar electric costs are 3X the costs of coal and nuclear. Liberal progressives apparently do not care about this impact on the poor and middle class.

This country was built on low energy costs. One reason we are in a low growth economy is the much higher cost of electricity. The U.S. used to have a competitive advantage on electric costs, not any more...

Wind is 16% cheaper than coal or nuclear

Good arguments are built on solid facts.

http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/electricity_generation.cfm

One solid fact that stands

One solid fact that stands out in the report, is that non-dispatchable technologies, which include all renewable sources with the exception of biomass and geothermal, have a calculated Operating and Maintenance cost of $0, while O&M costs average 1/2 the total system LCOE of traditional (coal & nuc) power generation.

I'd like to know just how that works. Wind turbines don't break down...ever? No one has to check them out...ever? Call me a skeptic.

Amazing things happen when paying attention

Table 1 clearly has two separate columns for Fixed O&M and Variable O&M and that wind (like all technologies) of course has a non-zero Fixed O&M cost.

It also shows that the Variable O&M of nuclear isn't anywhere near 1/2 of nuclear's cost and coal's is less than 1/3.

One can also see that hydro is both renewable and non-dispatchable, but has a non-zero Variable O&M cost.

Table 1 says Variable O&M

Table 1 says Variable O&M (including fuel) for non-dispatchable energy is 0. If that's true, then either Variable O&M is 100% fuel, or wind power has magical properties.

The authors do not explain what these terms mean to them, which is a problem in and of itself.

Paying attention is only half the task. Applying critical thinking is the other.

"Facts" v Facts, Definitions, and People to Contact

"Facts" v Facts

"One solid fact that stands out in the report, is that non-dispatchable technologies, which include all renewable sources with the exception of biomass and geothermal, have a calculated Operating and Maintenance cost of $0"

cf.

from Table 1. Estimated Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) for New Generation Resources, 2019

U.S. average levelized costs (2012 $/MWh) for plants entering service in 2019

O&M
=====
Wind 13.0
Wind-Offshore 22.8
Solar PV 11.4
Solar Thermal 42.1
Hydro 10.5

[ie, none of them are "$0" per the claim]

-------

Definitions

"Fixed O&M is the annual expenditure per unit of project capacity for operations and maintenance, expressed in $/MW/year. This includes costs that remain relatively constant, regardless of plant utilization levels, such as worker salaries and maintenance or refurbishment costs that are scheduled on a calendar basis rather than an operating-hours basis....

Variable O&M is the expenditure per unit of generation for operations and maintenance,
expressed in $/MWh. This expenditure includes costs that are closely tied to the actual operating hours of the equipment, such as consumable maintenance items and refurbishment costs that are scheduled based on operating hours (rather than on a calendar basis)."

http://www.eia.gov/renewable/workshop/gencosts/pdf/methodology_supplemen...

-------

People to Contact

John Conti is the Assistant Administrator for Energy Analysis at the EIA. His office would likely be happy to help explain their methodologies and definitions to a genuinely interested citizen.

http://www.eia.gov/about/john_conti.cfm

Jay, I've copied this

Jay, I've copied this directly from table 1:
Variable O&M (Including fuel)
Wind 0.0
Wind-Offshore 0.0
Solar PV2 0.0
Solar Thermal 0.0
Hydro3 6.4

Per the claim.

I clearly identified the numbers of interest as Variable. You've posted Fixed O&M. I do thank you for the definitions.

Quotes

"One solid fact that stands out in the report, is that non-dispatchable technologies, which include all renewable sources with the exception of biomass and geothermal, have a calculated Operating and Maintenance cost of $0"

cf.

"I clearly identified the numbers of interest as Variable."

There is no use of the word "variable" in your original claim. Just "O&M". Anyone can see this.

It was further reinforced by your follow-up comment:
"I'd like to know just how that works. Wind turbines don't break down...ever? No one has to check them out...ever?"

So for that to be true, it would assume there is no form of maintenance ever done. Clearly fixed O&M costs, per their definition, would address that.

You made a faulty assumption which then fed an illogical argument. Case closed.

If it weren't for trends...

The cost of producing nuclear energy has be steady for 20+ years, until they started building new plants, now the costs are rising. For instance the Levy plant in FL. construction costs have ballooned from $3.5 billion to $23 billion. Look at our local attempt by Centerpoint to updgrade it's reactors and the cost over-runs there.

Meanwhile the cost of producing renewables is decreasing, in some cases dramatically. Photovoltaic costs for instance have decreased from $75 per watt to.36 since 1977. The cost of fossil fuels tends to increase over time as supplies become more scarce and difficult to access. The more we deploy renewable energy technology the less expensive it will be. Not so with either coal or nuclear.

Sometimes headlines just write themselves

The Obama administration shuts down the country's only nuclear waste depository right before it is completed and puts the kibosh on coal plants and--there's your headline!

Yucca Mountain - defunded by the Congress, signed by Obama

See H.R.1473, Title IV, Sec. 1446
"Notwithstanding section 1101, the level for `Department of Energy, Energy Programs, Nuclear Waste Disposal' shall be $0."

House Republicans voted for it 179-59. Democrats voted against it 81-108.

Senate Republicans voted for it 32-15. Democrats voted for it 49-4.

So 74% of Republicans voted for it, compared to 54% of Democrats.

Well!

That pretty much shuts down that little talking point, now doesn't it?

LFTRs

This is the perfect time to change all of our reactors to LFTRs and away from old style plutonuim generators. Then we can use our spent nuclear waste as fuel. Nuclear power on a large scale seems inevitable to me.

Nuclear

I'm sure nuclear will continue to have a roll in our energy future, but I'm not counting on it being a big portion of the pie. The plants are simply too expensive to build, too expensive to maintain, and too expensive to upgrade. Not to mention if you put all your eggs in one basket, then you're running a huge risk of sabotage or a natural disaster taking out a good portion of your generating capacity.

Personally, I've got my eye on community solar gardens. Here's how it works.

You take a flat commercial roof, which is typically covered in tar and is a big urban heat sink. A company covers the roof with solar panels, then sells them to consumers. The installer covers the care and feeding of the panels, taking that burden off the homeowner.

The homewoner, in turn, gets their electrical prices locked in for 25 years. Gas, coal, and nuclear costs can go through the stratosphere over a couple of decades, but the homeowner pays...nothing. Basically the electricity has been paid for up front in 2014.

I'm meeting with one of the company engineers in a couple of weeks to ask a few questions and see if we can work out some hard numbers. I've got a few concerns, such as

-What happens if a hail or wind storm takes out the panels?
-How is the homeowner protected if the company goes bankrupt?
-What's the ROI (return on investment)?

It should be an interesting conversation.