Nuclear is flatlining

The IAEA Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhya (ISAMZ) arrives at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in Ukraine, comprising IAEA nuclear safety, security, and safeguards staff. 1 September 2022. 

There is no clear future for nuclear.

The golden rule of nuclear economics: add a zero to industry estimates for reactor construction costs and your estimate will be far closer to the mark than theirs.

Nuclear power remains stagnant and only an acceleration of China’s nuclear program will save the industry from a global death spiral.

The nuclear industry experience last year was the same as almost every other for the past 30 years: a small number of reactor start-ups and a small number of closures.

Meanwhile, the growth of renewables is being turbocharged as countries seek to strengthen energy security.


There were seven reactor start-ups worldwide in 2022 and five permanent reactor closures, a net gain of just 4.2 gigawatts (GW) of electricity generating capacity.

The fleet of mostly young reactors 30 years ago is now a fleet of mostly ageing reactors. 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.

Over the past decade, from 2013‒22, there were on average 6.5 reactor construction starts annually. That’s a recipe for slow decline. There were 20 construction starts over the past two years, suggesting the possibility of a further period of stagnation.

China’s nuclear program

Slight growth is also a possibility, if and only if China’s nuclear program accelerates. The 2022 World Nuclear Industry Status Report notes that from 2002‒2021, there were 50 reactor start-ups in China and no closures while in the rest of the world there was a net loss of 57 reactors.

China’s nuclear program is modest ‒ an average of 2.5 reactor start-ups per year from 2002‒2021. But the pace has picked up with 11 construction starts over the past two years. China’s nuclear program has picked up pace and then lost steam twice over the past 15 years, so only time will tell if the latest acceleration persists.

Therefore, China is sparing the nuclear industry from a global death spiral.

But China has also shown the world how to grow the nuclear industry: with inadequate nuclear safety and security standards, inadequate regulation, media repression, whistleblower repression, the worst insurance and liability arrangements in the world, and rampant corruption.

Even in the most optimistic scenario for the nuclear industry, its share of global electricity generation will continue to fall.

Nuclear power’s contribution to global electricity generation has fallen 46 percent from a peak of 17.5 percent in 1996 to 9.4 percent now.

The golden rule of nuclear economics: add a zero to industry estimates for reactor construction costs and your estimate will be far closer to the mark than theirs.

Stunning failures in the West

The growth of nuclear power in China contrasts with the stunning failure of reactor construction projects in the US, the UK and France.

In the US, the only reactor construction project is the Vogtle project in Georgia, which has two AP1000 reactors. The latest cost estimate of US$34 billion is more than double the US$14‒15.5 billion estimate when construction began.

Costs continue to increase and the project only survives because of multi-billion-dollar taxpayer bailouts.

The V.C. Summer project in South Carolina, which had two AP1000 reactors planned, was abandoned in 2017 after the expenditure of around US$9 billion.

In 2006, Westinghouse said it could build an AP1000 reactor for as little as US$1.4 billion ‒ 12 times lower than the current estimate for Vogtle.

The golden rule of nuclear economics

In the late 2000s, the estimated construction cost for one EPR reactor in the UK was £2 billion. The current cost estimate for two EPR reactors under construction at Hinkley Point ‒ the only reactor construction project in the UK ‒ is £32.7 billion.

Thus the current cost estimate is over eight times greater than the initial estimate of £2 billion per reactor.

The only current reactor construction project in France is one EPR reactor under construction at Flamanville. The current cost estimate of €19.1 billion is nearly six times greater than the original estimate of €3.3 billion. Lower figures are cited by EDF and others - but these typically exclude finance costs.

The ballooning cost estimates in the US, the UK and France have increased 12-fold, 8-fold and 6-fold. Thus we can posit the golden rule of nuclear economics: add a zero to industry estimates and your estimate will be far closer to the mark than theirs.

‘Turbocharged’ renewables growth

Nuclear power’s stagnation contrasts sharply with the growth of renewables. Renewable expansion of about 320 GW last year was 76 times greater than nuclear growth of 4.2 GW.

The same pattern was evident in 2021: nuclear capacity fell by 0.4 GW while renewable capacity growth amounted to 314 GW including 257 GW of non-hydro renewables.

Renewables, including hydro, accounted for 29.1 percent of worldwide electricity generation in 2022 according to the Electricity Market Report 2023 report by the International Energy Agency - more than three times nuclear’s share of 9.4 percent.

Nuclear has been overtaken by non-hydro renewables and has fallen below 10 percent for the first time in decades.

The growth of renewables is being turbocharged as countries seek to strengthen energy security, the IEA said in December when releasing its Renewables 2022 report.

Renewables soon to overtake coal and gas

The IEA projects that in 2025, renewable electricity generation will account for 34.6 percent of total global generation and renewables will have overtaken coal and gas.

The IEA projects that in 2027, renewable electricity generation will have grown to 38 percent of total global generation with declining shares from 2022-27 for all other sources: coal, gas, nuclear and oil.

Wind and solar PV are projected to more than double to account for almost 20 percent of global power generation in 2027.

The IEA projects that China will install almost half of new global renewable power capacity from 2022‒2027, with growth accelerating despite the phaseout of wind and solar PV subsidies.

In China in 2021, wind (656 terrawatt-hours ‒ TWh), solar (327 TWh) and hydro (1300 TWh) combined generated six times more electricity than nuclear (383 TWh).

China, the US and India to double renewable power generation

The IEA projects that China, the US and India will all double their renewable generating capacity from 2022‒27, accounting for two-thirds of global growth.

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in December 2022: “Renewables were already expanding quickly, but the global energy crisis has kicked them into an extraordinary new phase of even faster growth as countries seek to capitalise on their energy security benefits.

“The world is set to add as much renewable power in the next five years as it did in the previous 20 years.

“This is a clear example of how the current energy crisis can be a historic turning point towards a cleaner and more secure energy system. Renewables’ continued acceleration is critical to help keep the door open to limiting global warming to 1.5 °C.”

Nuclear risks in Ukraine

Meanwhile, there is an ongoing risk of a nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has released a report noting that several of Ukraine’s five nuclear power plants and other facilities have come under direct shelling over the past year.

The IAEA report states: “Every single one of the IAEA’s crucial seven indispensable pillars for ensuring nuclear safety and security in an armed conflict has been compromised, including the physical integrity of nuclear facilities; the operation of safety and security systems; the working conditions of staff; supply chains, communication channels, radiation monitoring and emergency arrangements; and the crucial off-site power supply.”

Loss of off-site power, and thus reliance on diesel generators to power reactor cooling, dramatically increases the risk of nuclear fuel meltdown and significantly increases the risk of a nuclear disaster.

The IAEA report further states: “Shelling, air attacks, reduced staffing levels, difficult working conditions, frequent losses of off-site power, disruption to the supply chain and the unavailability of spare parts, as well as deviations from planned activities and normal operations, have impacted each nuclear facility and many activities involving radioactive sources in Ukraine.

“The reliability of the national power infrastructure necessary for the safe and secure operation of the nuclear facilities has also been affected and, for the first time since the start of the armed conflict, all [nuclear power plant] sites, including the [Chernobyl] site, simultaneously suffered a loss of off-site power on 23 November 2022.”

In addition to the horrors that a nuclear catastrophe would inflict on Ukrainians, it would surely result in a global death spiral for nuclear power.

This Author

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and lead author of a detailed submission to a current Senate inquiry into nuclear power in Australia.

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