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Nuclear Goes Backwards, Again, as Wind and Solar Enjoy Another Year of Record Growth

Excellent update of nuclear vs. renewables potential, based mainly on IEA data, which has skewed pronuclear in the past but seems to be shifting. From an Australian ’new economy’ site.

Written by

Jim Green


Originally Published in

Renew Economy

The nuclear renaissance of the late-2000s was a bust due to the Fukushima disaster and catastrophic cost overruns with reactor projects. The latest renaissance is heading the same way, i.e. nowhere. Nuclear power went backwards last year.

There were five reactor start-ups and five permanent closures in 2023 with a net loss of 1.7 gigawatts (GW) of capacity. There were just six reactor construction starts in 2023, five of them in China.

Due to the ageing of the reactor fleet, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) anticipates the closure of 10 reactors (10 GW) per year from 2018 to 2050.

Thus the industry needs an annual average of 10 reactor construction starts, and 10 reactor startups (grid connections), just to maintain its current output. Over the past decade (2014-23), construction starts have averaged 6.1 and reactor startups have averaged 6.7.

The number of operable power reactors is 407 to 413 depending on the definition of operability, well down from the 2002 peak of 438.

Nuclear power’s share of global electricity generation has fallen to 9.2 percent, its lowest share in four decades and little more than half of its peak of 17.5 percent in 1996.

Over the two decades 2004-2023, there were 102 power reactor startups and 104 closures worldwide: 49 startups in China with no closures; and a net decline of 51 reactors in the rest of the world.

In China, there were five reactor construction starts in 2023 and just one reactor startup. Put another way, there was just one reactor construction start outside China in 2023. So much for the hype about a new nuclear renaissance.

Small modular reactors and ‘advanced’ nuclear power

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are the subject of endless hype but there were no SMR construction starts or startups last year. The biggest SMR news in 2023 was NuScale Power’s decision to abandon its flagship project in Idaho despite securing astronomical subsidies amounting to around US$4 billion (A$6.1 billion) from the US government.

The pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute noted in a November 2023 article that efforts to commercialise a new generation of ‘advanced’ nuclear reactors “are simply not on track” and it warned nuclear advocates not to “whistle past this graveyard”:

It wrote:

“The NuScale announcement follows several other setbacks for advanced reactors. Last month, X-Energy, another promising SMR company, announced that it was canceling plans to go public. This week, it was forced to lay off about 100 staff.

“In early 2022, Oklo’s first license application was summarily rejected by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before the agency had even commenced a technical review of Oklo’s Aurora reactor.

“Meanwhile, forthcoming new cost estimates from TerraPower and XEnergy as part of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Deployment Program are likely to reveal substantially higher cost estimates for the deployment of those new reactor technologies as well.”

Nuclear decline vs. record renewables growth

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has just released its ‘Renewables 2023’ report and it makes for a striking contrast with the nuclear industry’s malaise.

Nuclear power suffered a net loss of 1.7 GW capacity in 2023, whereas renewable capacity additions amounted to a record 507 GW, almost 50 percent higher than 2022. This is the 22nd year in a row that renewable capacity additions set a new record, the IEA states. Solar PV alone accounted for three-quarters of renewable capacity additions worldwide in 2023.

Nuclear power accounts for a declining share of share of global electricity generation (currently 9.2 percent) whereas renewables have grown to 30.2 percent. The IEA expects renewables to reach 42 percent by 2028 thanks to a projected 3,700 GW of new capacity over the next five years in the IEA’s ‘main case’.

The IEA states that the world is on course to add more renewable capacity in the next five years than has been installed since the first commercial renewable energy power plant was built more than 100 years ago.

Solar and wind combined have already surpassed nuclear power generation and the IEA notes that over the next five years, several other milestones will likely be achieved:

— In 2025, renewables surpass coal-fired electricity generation to become the largest source of electricity generation

— In 2025, wind surpasses nuclear electricity generation

— In 2026, solar PV surpasses nuclear electricity generation

— In 2028, renewable energy sources account for over 42 percent of global electricity generation, with the share of wind and solar PV doubling to 25 percent.

An estimated 96 percent of newly installed, utility-scale solar PV and onshore wind capacity had lower generation costs than new coal and natural gas plants in 2023, the IEA states.

Tripling renewables

The IEA states in its ‘Renewables 2023’ report that:

“Prior to the COP28 climate change conference in Dubai, the International Energy Agency (IEA) urged governments to support five pillars for action by 2030, among them the goal of tripling global renewable power capacity. Several of the IEA priorities were reflected in the Global Stocktake text agreed by the 198 governments at COP28, including the goals of tripling renewables and doubling the annual rate of energy efficiency improvements every year to 2030. Tripling global renewable capacity in the power sector from 2022 levels by 2030 would take it above 11 000 GW, in line with IEA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 (NZE) Scenario.

“Under existing policies and market conditions, global renewable capacity is forecast to reach 7300 GW by 2028. This growth trajectory would see global capacity increase to 2.5 times its current level by 2030, falling short of the tripling goal.”

In the IEA’s ‘accelerated case’, 4,500 GW of new renewable capacity will be added over the next five years (compared to 3,700 GW in the ‘main case’), nearing the tripling goal.

Tripling nuclear?

The goal of tripling renewables by 2030 is a stretch but it is not impossible. Conversely, the ‘pledge’ signed by just 22 nations at COP28 to triple nuclear power by 2050 appears absurd.

The Labor federal government signed Australia up to the renewables pledge but not the nuclear pledge. The Coalition wants to do the opposite, and also opposes the Labor government’s target of 82 per cent renewable power supply by 2030.

One of the lies being peddled by the Coalition is that nuclear power capacity could increase by 80 percent over the next 30 years. That is based on a ‘high case’ scenario from the IAEA. However the IAEA’s ‘low case’ scenario — ignored by the Coalition — is for another 30 years of stagnation.

So should we go with the IAEA’s high or low scenarios, or split the difference perhaps?

According to a report by the IAEA itself, the Agency’s ‘high’ forecasts have consistently proven to be ridiculous and even its ‘low’ forecasts are too high — by 13 percent on average.

Nuclear power won’t increase by 80 percent by 2050 and it certainly won’t triple; indeed it will struggle to maintain current output given the ageing of the reactor fleet and recent experience with construction projects.

Comparing nuclear and renewables in China

China’s nuclear program added only 1.2 GW capacity in 2023 while wind and solar combined added 278 GW. Michael Barnard noted in CleanTechnica that allowing for capacity factors, the nuclear additions amount to about 7 terrawatt-hours (TWh) of new low carbon generation per year, while wind and solar between them will contribute about 427 TWh annually, over 60 times more than nuclear.

Barnard commented:

“One of the things that western nuclear proponents claim is that governments have over-regulated nuclear compared to wind and solar, and China’s regulatory regime for nuclear is clearly not the USA’s or the UK’s. They claim that fears of radiation have created massive and unfair headwinds, and China has a very different balancing act on public health and public health perceptions than the west. They claim that environmentalists have stopped nuclear development in the west, and while there are vastly more protests in China than most westerners realize, governmental strategic programs are much less susceptible to public hostility.

“And finally, western nuclear proponents complain that NIMBYs block nuclear expansion, and public sentiment and NIMBYism is much less powerful in China with its Confucian, much more top down governance system.

“China’s central government has a 30 year track record of building massive infrastructure programs, so it’s not like it is missing any skills there. China has a nuclear weapons program, so the alignment of commercial nuclear generation with military strategic aims is in hand too. China has a strong willingness to finance strategic infrastructure with long-running state debt, so there are no headwinds there either.

“Yet China can’t scale its nuclear program at all. It peaked in 2018 with 7 reactors with a capacity of 8.2 GW. For the five years since then then it’s been averaging 2.3 GW of new nuclear capacity, and last year only added 1.2 GW …”

Dr. Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and a member of the Nuclear Consulting Group.