Analyst Says Nuclear Industry Is ‘Totally Irrelevant’ in the Market for New Power Capacity

Nuclear power has consistently provided about 19% to 20% of total annual U.S. electricity generation since 1990. It provides significant amounts of electricity in many other countries as well.

According to data from The World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR), a total of 414 reactors were operating in 32 countries, as of July 1, 2024. Preliminary data says China generated the second-most electricity from nuclear power in 2023 (behind the U.S.), while France came in third and had the highest percentage share of national power generation from nuclear power at 65%.

Many power industry experts and environmental activists consider nuclear power an important component in the world’s transition to carbon-free energy. Yet, Mycle Schneider, an independent international analyst on energy and nuclear policy, and coordinator, editor, and publisher of the annual WNISR, said, “in [new] capacity terms, the nuclear industry, from what is going on, on the ground, is totally irrelevant.”

Schneider was speaking as a guest on The POWER Podcast and prefaced his statement by comparing nuclear power additions to solar power additions in recent years. “Let’s look at China, because China is the only country that has been massively building nuclear power plants over the past 20 years,” he said.

“China connected one reactor to the grid in 2023—one gigawatt. In the same year, they connected, and the numbers vary, but over 200 gigawatts of solar alone. Solar power generates more electricity in China than nuclear power since 2022. And, of course, wind power generates more than nuclear power in China for a decade already,” Schneider said. Furthermore, he noted, the disparity has gone “completely unnoticed by the general public or even within the energy professionals that are in Europe or often also in North America.”

Schneider said the media often gives the impression that the nuclear industry is booming, but the facts suggest otherwise. “Over the past 20 years—2004 to 2023—104 reactors were closed down and 102 started up,” Schneider said. “But here is important that almost half, 49 of those new reactors started, were in China [where none closed], so the balance outside China is minus 51.”

Some nuclear advocates might suggest that things are changing. They might argue that small modular reactors (SMRs) or other advanced designs are poised to reinvigorate the industry. But Schneider disagrees. He noted that since the construction start of the second unit at Hinkley Point C in the UK in 2019—almost five years ago—there have been 35 nuclear project construction starts in the world. Twenty-two of those were in China and the other 13 were all implemented by the Russian nuclear industry in a few different countries. “Nothing else. Not an SMR here or an SMR there, or a large reactor here or a large reactor there by any other player,” reported Schneider.

Meanwhile, history has shown that the nuclear industry struggles to meet timeline targets. As examples, Schneider noted that on Jan. 1, 2022, 16 reactors were scheduled to come online during the following year. Only seven actually did. In 2023, nine were planned to come online, but only five made it to the grid. This demonstrates how bad the industry is at scheduling—it can’t even predict project completion at a high rate of accuracy during the final year of construction. “How precise could it possibly be if there are predictions for 2030, 2035, 2040, for reactors that don’t even have a [design] license yet?” asked Schneider.

Notably, timelines haven’t always improved on later units. Schneider said the EPR units have demonstrated a “negative learning curve.” Specifically, the first EPR units to enter commercial operation were at the Taishan site in China, which came online in 2018 and 2019. They had a shorter construction time than Olkiluoto 3 in Finland, which started construction about four years prior to Taishan but didn’t enter commercial operation until 2023. Flamanville 3 in France began construction in 2007 and hasn’t yet entered commercial operation. It could end up having a construction period even longer than Olkiluoto 3. To cap it all off, Schneider said the Hinkley Point C EPR units could be even longer than Flamanville 3.

“By the way, you can also show that through the building history of nuclear reactors in France—it’s actually a negative learning curve,” said Schneider. Furthermore, with so few reactors being constructed, learnings are limited.

Schneider noted that the vast majority of new capacity being added to the grid is from solar and wind energy. “These guys are building tens of thousands of wind turbines, and literally hundreds of millions of solar cells, so the learning effect is just absolutely stunning,” he said. “On the nuclear side, we’re talking about a handful. That’s very difficult. Very, very difficult—very challenging—to have a learning effect with so few units.”

Schneider said the nuclear discussion in general needs a “really thorough reality check.” He suggested the possibilities and feasibilities must be investigated. “Then, choices can be made on a solid basis,” he said.

To hear the full interview with Schneider, which contains more about the WNISR, what’s behind construction delays, how delays affect budgets, SMRs and why modular construction methods may not solve problems, and much more, listen to The POWER Podcast. Click on the SoundCloud player below to listen in your browser now or use the following links to reach the show page on your favorite podcast platform:

For more power podcasts, visit The POWER Podcast archives.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).

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