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The nuclear power industry is failing miserably

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green − Nuclear Monitor editor

The International Energy Agency (IEA) and the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) have released a Nuclear Energy Technology Roadmap, arguing that total installed nuclear capacity should be more than doubled to reach 930 GW by 2050 to contribute to climate change mitigation (well down from the 1200 GW figure put forward in the 2010 Nuclear Energy Technology Roadmap).1

Nuclear growth would contribute 13% of the emissions reductions envisaged in the IEA/NEA scenario (far less than 13% if all sectors are considered, not just power generation). Nuclear would account for 17% of electricity generation in 2050 − still less than the historical peak of 17.6% in 1996.

Writing in, Nick Cunningham argues that nuclear growth of the magnitude promoted in the IEA/NEA report is "highly unlikely".2 Obstacles include workforce issues, the need for greater standardisation, greater public acceptance, and a resolution to long-term nuclear waste storage.

Cunningham writes:

"Critically, however, the IEA notes that the nuclear industry is going to need to demonstrate that it can build new power plants on time and within budget. On this objective, the industry is failing miserably. Nuclear power plants have often suffered from cost overruns and delays, one factor (among many) that put the industry into a decades-long lull beginning in the early 1980's. The so-called "nuclear renaissance" was thought to put an end to these problems with a new generation of designs and modular construction. So far, it hasn't played out that way.

"Meanwhile, a tidal wave of nuclear reactors will close down over the next 20 years as their operating licenses expire. ... A massive build out of nuclear power in China is where the nuclear industry's best hopes reside, but it is unclear if even China can make up for the shrinking industry presence in the West, let alone meet the IEA's ambitious scenario for 2050."

Meanwhile, BP has released the 2015 edition of its annual Energy Outlook.3 BP projects that from 2015 to 2035:

  • Global energy consumption increases by 37% with India and China accounting for half the growth.
  • Total energy-related carbon emissions increase by 25%.
  • Coal demand growth in China and India more than makes up for declines in the rest of the world. Jointly they are projected to account for 66% of total coal demand in 2035.
  • Renewables (including biofuels) account for 8% of total energy consumption in 2035, compared to 3% today.
  • Renewable power generation overtakes nuclear in the early 2020s and hydro in the early 2030s.
  • The fastest fuel growth is seen in renewables (6.3% p.a.), followed by nuclear (1.8% p.a. − down from BP's 2014 estimate of 1.9% p.a.), hydro (1.7% p.a), natural gas (1.9% p.a.), and oil and coal (both 0.8% p.a.).
  • The shares of nuclear and hydro to total power generation continue to decline, but the scaling up of renewables is sufficient to lift the aggregate non-fossil share from 32% in 2013 to 38% by 2035.
  • Within the OECD, renewables contribute 90% of net growth in power generation from all sources. In non-OECD countries, there is significant growth in renewables, hydro and nuclear.
  • China overtakes the US as the biggest nuclear producer.
  • Nuclear power declines in Europe and North America: "Nuclear capacity in Europe and North America declines as ageing plants are gradually decommissioned, and the difficult economics and politics of nuclear energy stunts new growth."
  • Japan is assumed to restart its reactors gradually from 2015 but is not expected to recover to pre-Fukushima level of nuclear power generation by 2035.


1. International Energy Agency and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, 2015, 'Nuclear Energy Technology Roadmap', or
2. Nick Cunningham, 19 Feb 2015, 'Is There Any Hope Left For Nuclear Energy?',
3. BP, Feb 2015, 'Energy Outlook 2035',