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Nuclear, renewables, and the maverick nuclear industry insider

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

In July, Nuclear Monitor published a summary1 of the latest World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) and a critical review2 of the World Nuclear Association's (WNA) feeble attempt to match WNISR with the publication of its own report, the World Nuclear Performance Report 2016.

Steve Kidd has recently reviewed the two publications for Nuclear Engineering International.3 Regular readers of Nuclear Monitor will know Kidd as the nuclear industry insider (formerly with the WNA) who says out loud what everyone else in the nuclear industry keeps to themselves ‒ the nuclear renaissance is dead, the uranium industry is probably in for a long-term slump, reprocessing is "environmentally dirty", etc.

Kidd writes that while the WNISR authors are "unashamedly in the anti-nuclear camp", the report contains "a lot of good information ... while many of the points made are worthy of reflection". He questions the failure to discuss hydro and fossil fuels in detail.

Kidd writes: "The growth rates of wind and solar are certainly hugely impressive and way ahead of what most analysts were expecting only a few years ago. And with the exception of China, South Korea and a few other countries, the nuclear situation on this measure looks bleak."

He notes that WNISR's "complaint that the nuclear sector is far too optimistic on the possibility of reactors getting established in new nuclear countries ... is entirely valid. The fact that only Belarus and the UAE seem set to reach there in the next five to ten years makes the point perfectly."

On the WNA's report, Kidd writes:

"The report, unlike WNISR, is also commendably honest about the status of the industry it is trying to promote. Statements such as "the situation facing the nuclear industry globally is challenging" and "the recent history of the global nuclear industry has been mixed" are understatements, but welcome all the same. Nevertheless, as with WNISR, one has to read the report with the expectation that the best gloss will be put on facts and figures to suit the authors' case. In particular, the few crumbs of comfort (such as any positive mention of nuclear in a prominent international report) are highlighted and accorded more significance than they deserve. ...

"[T]he statement that industry prospects seem brighter than they have been for a while is not supported by the facts and figures in the chapter on nuclear industry performance. In terms of power output, the world nuclear sector is still stuck where it has been for the last 20 years.

"Although the near future should at least see more reactors starting up than shutting down, the revival rests on shaky foundations. These include the Japanese restarts, where there remains huge uncertainties, a range of new technologies such as small modular reactors, advances in development (still many years away), several major nuclear build programmes about to get under way (where and when?), and a positive shift in public support for nuclear energy in many Western countries (where?)."

Kidd notes that there is a "huge mismatch" between the WNA's 'harmony' vision ‒ a near-tripling of nuclear capacity to 1,000 gigawatts by 2050 ‒ and where the industry is today. He questions whether the WNA's 'harmony' vision is "a scenario, a vision, an aspiration, a target or merely a fantasy?"

Kidd argues that the nuclear industry should abandon its vision of 'harmonious' growth of both nuclear and renewables and should instead wage war against renewables ‒ in his words, the nuclear industry should adopt "a more aggressive stance" and start pointing out the "pitfalls" of renewables. Whether or not that is good advice (from his pro-nuclear perspective) is a moot point: the nuclear industry is already waging war against renewables.4,5


Commenting on the "hugely impressive" growth of renewables, Kidd warns that "this has been the easy phase for renewables" and ongoing strong growth depends on the resolution of "a number of difficult issues".3

That's a fair comment ‒ but it's also true that strong growth of renewables can be confidently predicted at least for the next 5‒10 years (beyond which there are too many uncertainties to confidently predict the trajectory of any power source ‒ few predicted the doubling of renewable energy generation or the decline of nuclear power over the past decade).

The International Energy Agency's (IEA) October 2015 Renewable Energy Medium-Term Market Report predicted 700 gigawatts (GW) of new renewable power capacity from 2015−2020, with renewables accounting for almost two-thirds of new power generation capacity over that period.6

And the IEA has just released the 2016 version of its Renewable Energy Medium-Term Market Report and it is considerably more bullish than last year's report:7 Last year's estimate of 700 GW of new renewable capacity over the next five years has been upped to 825 GW from 2016‒21.

The 2016 IEA report states:

  • annual renewable electricity capacity growth reached an all-time record in 2015 at 153 GW;
  • renewables accounted for more than half of net annual additions to power capacity in 2015, and will account for over 60% of total electricity generation growth from 2016‒21;
  • record deployment was accompanied by "continued sharp generation cost reductions", with further cost reductions of 15% for onshore wind and 25% for utility-scale solar PV anticipated over the next five years;
  • global renewable electricity capacity is expected to grow by 42% (825 GW) by 2021; and
  • the share of renewables in overall electricity generation is expected to rise from over 23% in 2015 to almost 28% in 2021.

Keep in mind that the IEA isn't an advocacy organization with a track record of publishing over-optimistic renewable energy forecasts. On the contrary, the Agency has a track record of consistently underestimating renewable energy growth.8

The IEA's latest report notes that there is considerable potential for far more rapid growth than it projects. The report identifies additional policy initiatives which would result in growth 29% higher than the projection of 825 GW. That would mean around 1,060 GW over the next five years to add to the 912 GW added from 2004‒149 and the 153 GW added last year.10

The 'additional policy initiatives' the report discusses are:

  • Addressing infrastructure challenges and market design issues to improve grid integration of renewables.
  • Implementing stable and sustainable policy frameworks that give greater revenue certainty to capital-intensive renewables and reducing policy uncertainties.
  • Developing policy mechanisms that reduce cost of financing and lower off-taker risks especially in developing countries and emerging economies.

IEA executive director Dr Fatih Birol said: "We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables and, as is the case with other fields, the center of gravity for renewable growth is moving to emerging markets."11

Nuclear comparisons

How does the spectacular growth of renewables compare to nuclear power? There is no comparison. A decade ago, nuclear and renewables produced roughly equivalent amounts of electricity; now, renewables produce more than twice as much as nuclear.

Nuclear power has been stagnant over the past decade if measuring by installed capacity.12 And to achieve that underwhelming conclusion of stagnant nuclear capacity, you need to include 40 idled reactors in Japan even though a significant fraction will likely never restart. Kidd states that the inclusion of idled reactors in the calculations presented by the WNA and the International Atomic Energy Agency is "misleading" and "clearly ridiculous".3

If we measure by actual electricity generation, nuclear power is clearly in decline. The latest World Nuclear Industry Status Report provides the following facts:13

  • nuclear electricity generation in 2015 was 8.2% below the historic peak in 2006;
  • nuclear power's share of global commercial primary energy consumption was 4.4% in both 2014 and 2015 ‒ the lowest level since 1984;
  • nuclear's share of global electricity generation ‒ 10.7% in 2015 (compared to renewables' 23.7%) ‒ has declined from a historic peak of 17.6% in 1996; and
  • since 2000, countries have added 646 GW of wind and solar capacity (combined) while nuclear capacity (not including the idled reactors in Japan) fell by 8 GW.

The World Nuclear Industry Status Report concludes: "In short, the 2015 data shows that renewable energy based power generation is enjoying continuous rapid growth, while nuclear power production, excluding China, is shrinking globally. Small unit size and lower capacity factors of renewable power plants continue to be more than compensated for by their short lead times, easy manufacturability and installation, and rapidly scalable mass production. Their high acceptance level and rapidly falling system costs will further accelerate their development."13

Yellowcake blues

Kidd recently weighed in ‒ once again ‒ on the uranium industry's protracted slump. He writes:14

"Underlying demand for uranium in 2015, represented by calculated reactor requirements, was around 60,000 tonnes. Production in 2015 was close to this, but was almost double the level of the trough in 1999, when it was just over 32,000 tonnes. The missing factor here is of course secondary supplies. With the end of the HEU deal between Russia and the West in 2013 the level is not as high as it was during the late 1990s to early 2000s. But it is not much lower, as the enrichment companies have become adept at "creating" uranium through underfeeding and re-enriching it. ...

"Secondary supplies in total are still contributing about 15,000 tonnes, meaning that total supply is now running at about 75,000 tonnes. With demand at 60,000 tonnes, inventories held by the producers and their customers must be rising by about 15,000 tonnes per year. ...

"So overall, uranium production has risen by half over the past 10 years at a time when underlying demand has stayed constant. Abundant secondary supplies are coming to the market so the level of uranium inventories has naturally risen sharply. The market has clearly been production-driven. The question now is what happens if some of today's high inventory levels begin to hit the market? The only possible response is significantly lower production and possibly prices too."

As if to prove Kidd's points, the uranium spot price has been in free-fall recently. The spot price in late October ranged from US$18.75 to $20.00 / lb U3O8. That's a big fall from the spot price in January 2016 ($34.70); it's one-third of the pre-Fukushima price; and it's one-seventh of the price at the peak of a bubble in 2007. The long-term price ($35.50) is down 19% this year and down 44% compared to five years ago.15




3. Steve Kidd, 13 Oct 2016, 'Nuclear power in the world – pessimism or optimism?',

4. Michael Mariotte, 1 Aug 2016, 'It's not utilities leading the energy revolution',

5. Mark Cooper, June 2015, 'Power Shift: The deployment of a 21st century electricity sector and the nuclear war to stop it', www

6. International Energy Agency, Oct 2015, 'Renewable Energy Medium-Term Market Report',

7. IEA, 2016, 'Renewable Energy Medium-Term Market Report: Executive Summary',

8. Christian Breyer, 12 Nov 2015, 'Why does the IEA keep underestimating solar and wind?',



11. IEA, 25 Oct 2016, 'IEA raises its five-year renewable growth forecast as 2015 marks record year',



14. Steve Kidd, 1 Sept 2016, 'Uranium – the market, lower prices and production costs',