Renewable energy outpacing the installed nuclear power capacity

In 2010, for the first time, worldwide cumulated installed capacity of wind power (197 gigawatts), biomass and waste-to-energy plants (65 GW), and solar energy (43 GW) reached 385 GW, outpacing the installed nuclear power capacity of 375 GW prior to the Fukushima disaster.

On the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the nuclear industry is declining and in the worst state that it has been for a long time, despite its PR attempts to claim the contrary.

A new independent study, the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2010-11, launched in Brussels, illustrates that not enough new units are coming online to replace those being retired, costs are rising prohibitively, and the world’s reactor fleet is ageing quickly.

Nuclear power development is also not keeping up with the pace of its renewable energy competitors: annual renewables capacity additions have been outpacing nuclear start-ups for 15 years.

As of 1 April, 2011, there were 437 nuclear reactors operating in the world — seven fewer than in 2002. In 2009, nuclear power plants generated 2,558 TWh of electricity, about 2% less than the previous year, the fourth year in a row that output has dropped. It now accounts for about 13% of the world’s electricity generation and 5.5% of the commercial primary energy.

In the US, the share of renewables in new capacity additions skyrocketed from 2% in 2004 to 55% in 2009, with no new nuclear coming on line.

Total investment in renewable energy technologies has been estimated at $243 billion in 2010.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) currently lists 64 reactors as “under construction” in 14 countries. By comparison, at the peak of the industry’s growth phase in 1979, there were 233 reactors being built concurrently.

In 2008, for the first time since the beginning of the nuclear age, not one new unit was started up, while two were added in 2009, five in 2010, and two in the first three months of 2011. But during the same time period, 11 reactors were shut down.

In the European Union, as of April 1, 2011, there were 143 reactors officially operational, down from a historical maximum of 177 units in 1989.

Can we maintain the current level of nuclear power?

Quite simply, no, unless plant lifetimes are drastically increased beyond 40 years.

The average age of the world’s operating nuclear power plants is 26 years. Some nuclear utilities envisage reactor lifetimes of 40 years or more, but considering that the average age of the 130 units that already have been closed is about 22 years, this appears rather optimistic, especially in the light of the Fukushima disaster and the German government’s decision to suspend operation of all reactors over 30 years old.

The report contains a number of scenarios. One assumes an average lifetime of 40 years for all reactors in order to estimate how many plants would be shut down year by year.

In this scenario, in addition to the plants under construction, leading to a capacity increase of 5 GW (less than the seven German units currently off line), 18 additional reactors would have to be finished and started up prior to 2015 – that is, one new grid connection every three months, with an additional 191 units (175 GW) over the following decade — one every 19 days.

This is simply impossible. Therefore, even if the installed capacity level could be maintained, the number of operating reactors will decline over the coming years, unless lifetime extensions beyond 40 years become the widespread standard.

New reactors have extremely long lead times of ten years and more. Therefore it will be practically impossible to maintain, let alone increase, the number of operating nuclear power plants over the next 20 years.

Are new plants more cost-effective?

Not on current evidence.

The flagship EPR project at Olkiluoto in Finland, managed by the largest nuclear builder in the world, AREVA NP, has turned into a financial fiasco.

The project is four years behind schedule and at least 90% over budget, reaching a total cost estimate of €5.7 billion ($8.2 billion) or close to €3,500 ($5,000) per kilowatt.

The dramatic post-Fukushima situation adds to the international economic crisis and is exacerbating many of the problems that proponents of nuclear energy are facing.

As the UK pledges £28.5 million for the safety of the Chernobyl sarcophagus, still costing money after a quarter of a century and likely to do so for a long time to come, the downward trend of the industry is empirically evident. The Fukushima disaster is likely to accelerate the decline, concludes the report.