Mon, Sep 09, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Nuclear power in ‘reverse renaissance’

The rise of wind, solar and other renewable energies, as well as surging operating costs and potential risks are precipitating the end of the nuclear age, with global atomic energy production dropping 12 percent below its historic maximum over the past year

By Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt

In total, at least 23 of the 66 units currently under construction have encountered delays, many of which have lasted for several years. Whether the other projects, all of which have been initiated in the past five years, are on schedule remains to be seen. As a result of such delays, only three new units began operating last year, half the number of reactors that were shut down. The average age of the world’s reactor fleet now stands at 28 years and continues to increase steadily.

By contrast, new renewable technologies are gaining traction, illustrating a fundamental shift in international energy policy and investment strategies. Last year, China, Germany, Japan and India generated more power from renewables than from nuclear for the first time. In China and India, wind alone outpaced nuclear energy.

Since 2000, global onshore wind power generation has averaged 27 percent annual growth, while the growth rate for solar photovoltaics has been 42 percent. Last year, an additional 45 gigawatts of wind energy and 32 gigawatts of solar power were installed worldwide, compared with a net addition of 1.2 gigawatts of nuclear power.

The shift to renewables has been particularly pronounced in the world’s major advanced economies. For example, Germany’s ongoing nuclear phase-out has been complemented by accelerated renewables implementation, with up to 3,000 megawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity connected to Germany’s power grid in a single month. As a result, the price per installed solar kilowatt has dropped by three-quarters over the past seven years.

Even in the US, where cheap shale gas is reshaping the energy industry, more wind power was connected to the grid last year than gas and, in the first three months of this year, more than 80 percent of new capacity was renewable.

Over the past decade, the nuclear industry has attempted to capture global leaders’ attention with a promotional campaign centered around the notion of a “nuclear renaissance.” However, their promises — including investment costs of US$1,000 per installed kilowatt and building times of four years — have proved to be false.

Since the industry launched its public relations campaign in the early 2000s, cost estimates have increased roughly sevenfold and profits have declined. The 34 reactors that started up over the past decade had a mean construction time of nearly 10 years, but contributed just 26 gigwatts — one-third of what solar and wind added in one year.

The IAEA’s optimistic rhetoric cannot obscure fundamental arithmetic: skyrocketing maintenance expenses and, in many cases, post-Fukushima upgrade costs, together with the impossibility of building competitive new capacity without massive government subsidies, are devastating the nuclear industry.

As economist Mark Cooper has put it, nuclear power is actually undergoing a “renaissance in reverse.”

Mycle Schneider, an independent international consultant on energy and nuclear policy, is a project manager and the lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report. Antony Froggatt, an independent European energy consultant, is a senior research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, London.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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