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IAEA acknowledges bleak future for nuclear power

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has released the 2017 edition of its 'International Status and Prospects for Nuclear Power' report series.1

Pro-nuclear assessments of the future of nuclear power need some decoding ‒ they routinely use a number of methods to deceive and obfuscate.

Firstly, they present low and high scenarios ‒ and sometimes a middling 'reference' scenario. Readers might reasonably assume that the most likely outcome will lie somewhere between the low and high scenarios. But the IAEA has assessed its past performance and found that even its low-growth projections tend to be too high.2,3 An assessment of the growth projections of other pro-nuclear organizations, such as the World Nuclear Association, would no doubt reach a similar conclusion. So if the growth projections of pro-nuclear organizations are of any value, only the low-growth scenario need be considered.

Secondly, pro-nuclear organizations also deceive and obfuscate by projecting the growth of nuclear power many decades into the future. Projections covering the next 15‒25 years are uncertain; projections covering 30+ years are meaningless. The IAEA's latest report notes "the high degree of substantial uncertainty in nuclear power's future".1

A third deceit is that pro-nuclear organizations include reactors in long-term outage in their lists of 'operable' or 'operating' reactors. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report, by contrast, lists 33 reactors in Japan, and six in other countries, as Long-term Outages (reactors that have not generated any electricity in the previous calendar year and in the first half of the current calendar year).4

So what does the IAEA's International Status and Prospects for Nuclear Power report have to say ‒ keeping in mind that we're only interested in its low-growth projection, and its mid-term projection rather than its meaningless 30+ year fantasies?

The IAEA's low-growth projection is for a decline of global nuclear power capacity by 12% in 2030 and 15% in 2040 (from 392 GW in 2016 (including reactors in long-term outage) to 345 GW in 2030 and 332 GW in 2040). Significant decline is expected in North America and in Europe (apart from Eastern Europe), while significant growth is projected in central and eastern Asia.

The IAEA has sharply reduced its growth projections since the Fukushima disaster:






Low estimate 2030 nuclear capacity (GW)




‒ 201 GW

High estimate 2030 nuclear capacity (GW)




‒ 249 GW

Note that the current high estimate for nuclear capacity in 2030 (554 GW) is only slightly higher than the pre-Fukushima low estimate (546 GW).

The IAEA offers this not-very-helpful explanation for nuclear power's declining prospects: "The decline compared to previous projections is mainly on account of early retirement or lack of interest in extending life of nuclear power plants in some countries, due to the reduced competitiveness of nuclear power in the short run and national nuclear policies in several countries following the accident at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011."6

The IAEA's long-term low-growth projection is that nuclear capacity will rebound after falling to 332 GW in 2040 and will be close to the current capacity of 392 GW in 2050. Achieving that outcome ‒ i.e. stagnation over a period of one-third of a century ‒ would require 320 GW of new build to replace retired reactors. In other words, 10 new reactors will need to come online each year until 2050 just to maintain current nuclear capacity.

In the low projection, nuclear power's share of global electricity generation declines from the current level of about 11% to 7.8% in 2030, to 6.2% in 2040, and to 6% by 2050.

High projection

According to the IAEA's high projection, global nuclear capacity reaches 554 GW by 2030, 717 GW by 2040 and 874 GW by 2050. The IAEA report states that reaching the high projection for 2050 would require 30–35 new reactors being connected to the grid every year starting around 2025.

The IAEA claims that its projections were developed by "world experts" and "renowned experts" ‒ but no-one with any serious pretence to expertise would put their name to those fanciful and implausible projections.

Even under the fanciful high projection, there is a slight decline in North America by 2050, and nuclear capacity in Europe (other than Eastern Europe) increases only slightly.

In the high projection, the estimated share of nuclear power in the total electricity supply
increases from 11% currently to 12.4% in 2030, to 13.4% in 2040, and to 13.7% in 2050.

Country analysis

The IAEA claims that 28 countries are interested in introducing nuclear power. But in many of those countries the 'interest' is paper-thin or non-existent and only two newcomer countries ‒ Belarus and the UAE ‒ are actually building reactors.

The IAEA claims that of the 30 countries operating power reactors, 13 are either constructing new ones or are completing previously suspended construction projects, and 16 have plans or proposals for building new reactors. But counting 'planned' and 'proposed' reactors is another deceit; the IAEA knows as well as anyone else that only a small fraction of those reactors will be built.

Jan Haverkamp, an expert consultant for WISE International and Greenpeace, writes in a critique of the IAEA report:

"New construction in Argentina, Brazil, France, Japan, South Korea, Ukraine, the USA and even Slovakia is facing so many problems that a considerable amount and possibly the majority of these projects will not be ever linked to the grid. More construction in South Korea and the USA is highly unlikely. Plans in Armenia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Romania, South Africa and the UK are shady or threatened or both.

"And not only Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, as the IAEA states in its overview, but also Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Lithuania, the Philippines, and over a hundred non-nuclear countries have firm policies not to build new units.

"Next to Germany, the only country put into that category by the IAEA, also France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK, the US and probably more have firm policies to close existing units."

Nuclear vs. renewables

The IAEA report states that the share of nuclear power in total global electricity generation has decreased for 10 years in a row, to almost 11% in 2015, yet "this still corresponds to nearly a third of the world's low carbon electricity production." In other words, renewables (24.5% of global generation7) generate more than twice as much electricity as nuclear power (10.5%4) and the gap is growing rapidly.

Five years from now, renewables will likely be generating three times as much electricity as nuclear reactors. The International Energy Agency recently released a five-year forecast for renewables, predicting renewable capacity growth of 43% (920 GW) by 2022.8,9 The latest forecast is a "significant upwards revision" from last year's forecast, the Agency states, largely driven by solar power growth in China and India. Overall, the share of renewables in power generation will reach 30% in 2022 (over 8,000 TWh), the Agency forecasts, up from 24% in 2016.

Further comments on the IAEA report

The IAEA report states that "significant advances" have been made in the design and development of small modular reactors (SMRs). But the report itself notes that only a few SMRs are under construction and it is fanciful for the IAEA to then state that the "first commercial fleet of SMRs is expected to operate in the time frame of 2025–2030".

The report is more circumspect about fast neutron reactors, stating that they "will not play a decisive role before 2050 but could become important thereafter".

On other issues, the IAEA report is superficial at best:

  • The only mention of weapons proliferation is the statement that "concerns about radiation risks, waste management, safety and proliferation remain the areas that most influence public acceptance."
  • The report mentions counterfeit, fraudulent and suspect nuclear components and notes that these problems have a "key impact on safety", but all it adds is the assertion that "numerous activities" within the nuclear industry are addressing the problems.
  • The financing of nuclear projects is "challenging" and the risks are "particularly severe in liberalized electricity markets".
  • Maintaining and developing a competent nuclear workforce is "among the biggest challenges for the nuclear community".

World Nuclear Association

Commenting on the IAEA report, the World Nuclear Association (WNA) highlighted the IAEA's fanciful high projection for 2050 in an article titled 'Nuclear capacity could more than double by 2050, says IAEA'.10

The WNA has recently published the latest edition of its biennial report series, The Nuclear Fuel Report.11 Its low-growth projection is for a slight decline in nuclear power capacity by 2035.

Since the 2015 edition of the WNA report, the Association's projections have been revised downwards by 10‒15%. The report states: "Further closures for economic reasons and less new construction than previously anticipated in the USA, delays to some Chinese construction projects, changes to South Korean plans, and slower restarts of Japanese reactors are among the considerations contributing to the decline."

The WNA report notes challenges facing nuclear power including "lower expectations of electricity demand growth, increased competition from gas and renewables, electricity market liberalisation, political opposition, and difficulties encountered in some Generation III reactor construction programs."


Leaving aside the nonsense reports by the IAEA and the WNA, the question is whether the decline of nuclear power over the next 15‒20 years will be slow and incremental or whether it will be sharper.

The IAEA and the WNA assume that rapid growth in China will largely make up for decline elsewhere. The WNA's 'reference' scenario, for example, assumes that nuclear capacity in China will grow from 37 GW today to 141 GW in 2035.11 But the 141 GW projection isn't credible.

China's nuclear slow-down is addressed in an August 2017 article by former WNA executive Steve Kidd.12 Kidd notes that many of the negative factors which have affected nuclear programs elsewhere in the world are now also crucial in China.

China's nuclear program "has continued to slow sharply" with the most striking feature being the lack of approvals for new construction ‒ no new approvals for 18 months.

Kidd continues: "Other signs of trouble are the uncertainties about the type of reactor to be utilised in the future, the position of the power market in China, the structure of the industry with its large state owned enterprises (SOEs), the degree of support from top state planners and public opposition to nuclear plans."

Over-supply has worsened in some regions and there are questions about how many reactors are needed to satisfy power demand. Kidd writes: "[T]he slowing Chinese economy, the switch to less energy- intensive activities, and over-investment in power generation means that generation capacity outweighs grid capacity in some provinces and companies are fighting to export power from their plants. New nuclear units may not run at the 80-90% capacity factors necessary to pay back their capital cost. Tariffs are also under threat. The central government is gradually liberalising the Chinese power sector and making it more responsive to economic conditions. This may not help nuclear. The costs of building Generation III units is rising. Reactors may have to load- follow, which is technically and economically undesirable."

Kidd estimates that China's nuclear capacity will be around 100 GW by 2030, well below previous expectations. Forecasts of 200 GW by 2030, "not unusual only a few years ago, now seem very wide of the mark."

"Public opinion matters a great deal in China and, in common with their peers in capitalist democracies, politicians fight shy of any issue that could inflame public opinion in any way," Kidd writes. "The last thing the Chinese government wants is people protesting on the streets, but this has already happened with two proposed [nuclear] fuel cycle plants. Both were quickly cancelled."

Kidd states that nuclear power in China may become "a last resort, rather as it is throughout most of the world."

The growth of wind and solar dwarfs new nuclear, Kidd writes, and the hydro power program "is still enormous."

Chinese government agencies note that in the first half of 2017, renewables accounted for 70% of new capacity added (a sharp increase from the figure of 52% in 2016), thermal sources (mainly coal) 28% and nuclear just 2%.13


1. International Atomic Energy Agency, 28 July 2017, 'International Status and Prospects for
Nuclear Power 2017: Report by the Director General',

2. IAEA, 2007, Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power: Developments and Projections − 25 Years Past and Future', tables 33 and 34, p.56,

3. Nuclear Monitor #811, 23 Sept 2015, 'Fanciful growth projections from the World Nuclear Association and the IAEA',

4. Mycle Schneider, Antony Froggatt et al., 12 Sept 2017, World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2017,

5. IAEA series: 'Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates',

6. Irena Chatzis / IAEA Department of Nuclear Energy, 7 Aug 2017, 'Long-Term Potential of Nuclear Power Remains High: IAEA Report',

7. REN21, 2017, 'Renewables 2017 Global Status Report',

8. International Energy Agency, 2017, 'Renewables 2017: Analysis and Forecasts to 2022', Executive Summary,

9. Jocelyn Timperley, 4 Oct 2017, 'IEA: Renewable electricity set to grow 40% globally by 2022',

10. World Nuclear Association, 8 Aug 2017, 'Nuclear capacity could more than double by 2050, says IAEA',

11. World Nuclear Association, 14 Sept 2017, 'Nuclear fuel report sees growth and gaps',

12. Steve Kidd, 10 Aug 2017, 'Nuclear in China – why the slowdown?',

13. John Mathews, 1 Sept 2017, 'China's amazing green shift to solar, wind and water power',