2008 world nuclear industry status report: Global nuclear power

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2008 world nuclear industry status report
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist

Hype over the future of nuclear power is rampant, but the facts tell a different story. The percentage of nuclear-generated electricity in the overall global energy mix is decreasing. In this three-part series Mycle Schneider, a French independent nuclear analyst, explores the difficulties facing nuclear power throughout the world and in Western Europe and Asia in particular.

2008 world nuclear industry status report: Global nuclear power

By Mycle Schneider | 16 September 2008

Last Thursday, in the midst of the world media's constant constant nuclear revival reportage, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had an embarrassing announcement to make. While it has increased its projections for nuclear generation in 2030, nuclear's share of global electricity generation dropped another percentage point in 2007. The world's nuclear electricity generation had decreased by 2 percent in 2007--in the European Union (EU) it dropped 6 percent--more than in any other year since the first fission reactor was connected to the Soviet grid in 1954. The drop by about 60 terawatt hours corresponds to the average annual generation of 10 reactors.

Major contributing factors were the seven units at Kashiwazaki, Japan, which have remained shut down since a severe earthquake shook the region in July 2007; the up to six German reactors that have been taken off the grid simultaneously for major repairs; and the numerous French reactors that have undergone inspections and maintenance after a generic problem was identified in their steam generators. The latter issue is expected to cost the French nuclear fleet another 2-3 percent of its average load factor for 2008 and through 2009. The "Big Six" nuclear powers--the United States, France, Japan, Germany, Russia, and South Korea--saw their global share of nuclear-generated electricity drop from about three-quarters in previous years to 68 percent in 2007.

At the beginning of September, there were 439 operating nuclear reactors worldwide, five less than five years ago, with a total installed capacity of 372 gigawatts in 31 countries. No new nuclear plant has come online since the beginning of the year.

The installed capacity has increased slightly through "uprating," or technical improvements at existing plants that increase electricity generation. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has approved 110 uprates since 1977, a few of them "extended uprates" of up to 20 percent. An additional seven uprates are to be completed through the end of the year. As a result, close to an additional 5 gigawatts were added to the U.S. nuclear capacity through uprates alone--the equivalent of about four new plants. Europe is experiencing a similar trend of uprates and life extensions of existing reactors.

The capacity of the global fleet increased between 2000 and 2004 by about 3 gigawatts per year, much of it through uprating. That dropped to 2 gigawatts per year between 2004 and 2007 and to about 0.5 gigawatts over the first eight months of 2008. These figures should be compared to the global net increase in all electricity generating capacity of an estimated 150 gigawatts for all new power plants, from fossil-fuelled facilities to renewable energy, per year. That leaves nuclear energy with an insignificant fraction in the global power marketplace.

In 2007, nuclear power plants generated 2,600 terawatt hours, about 14 percent of the world's commercial electricity (down from 15 percent in 2006 and 16 percent in 2005) or less than 6 percent of the commercial primary energy and on the order of 2 percent of final energy. Only five countries (Armenia, Romania, Slovenia, South Africa, and Switzerland), which together operate 11 nuclear plants, increased their nuclear share in the power mix in 2007 over the previous year. Fifteen countries remained stable (less than a 1 percent change) and in 11 countries the role of nuclear power declined. (See chart PDF.)

Construction sites in the 14 countries that are currently building nuclear power plants are accumulating substantial and costly delays. At the end of August, the IAEA listed 35 reactors as "under construction," which is one more than at the end of 2007, but 18 less than at the end of the 1990s. The total capacity is just under 28,300 megawatts with an average size of 800 megawatts per unit. A closer look at the list illustrates the level of uncertainty associated with reactor building:

Eleven reactors, almost one-third of the total listed, have been under construction for more than 20 years. The U.S. Watts Bar 2 project holds the record with an original construction start in December 1972 (subsequently frozen), followed by the Iranian Bushehr plant that was started by German Siemens in May 1975 and is now to be finished by Russia.

Fifteen projects don't have an official start-up date, including all seven of the Russian projects, two Bulgarian reactors, and three of the six Chinese units under construction. In fact, one Russian plant (Balakovo-5), which had been listed since 1987 and was to go online by the end of 2010, was abandoned and pulled off the list earlier this year. It was replaced by a new project (Novovoronezh 2-1) without any indication of a planned start-up date.

Two-thirds of the under-construction units have encountered significant construction delays, pushing back officially announced start-up dates. Only 10 projects haven't indicated delays, they are three Chinese, one Pakistani, three South Korean, and three Russian units. They were all started within the last three years and haven't reached their projected start-up dates yet, which makes it difficult or impossible to assess whether they are on schedule.

The geographic distribution of nuclear power plant projects extends the trend of previous years. Between 2004 and 2007, 14 nuclear plants, the total number of units that started up during that time, were located in Asia or Eastern Europe. Similarly, 30 of the 35 reactors currently "under construction" are also located in those regions. The average global construction time for nuclear plants (more than nine years for the 14 most recent ones) isn't a useful metric because of great differences between countries. The four reactors that started up in Romania, Russia, and Ukraine took between 18 and 24 years, while the 10 units that were connected to the grid in China, India, Japan, and South Korea took only five years to complete on average. (read more)