You are here

An undeclared 'organic' nuclear power phase-out

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

There was a striking increase in the number of nuclear power reactor construction starts in the late 2000s ‒ 50 from 2006‒2010 compared to just 13 in the preceding five years.1 Some of that momentum spilled over into the post-Fukushima years ‒ 32 construction starts from 2011‒2015.2 But construction starts have dried up dramatically ‒ just 13 from Jan. 2016 to Nov. 2019, averaging 3.1 per year.2

In January 2019, the World Nuclear Association expected that 15 power reactors would enter commercial operation this year.3 But as of early November, only eight have either commenced operation (three) or are expected to by the end of the year (five).2

That pattern has been repeated in recent years: delays have been the norm and estimated dates for grid-connections have been pushed back.

In the broad sweep of things, this pattern probably means that the earlier spike in construction starts probably won't result in a spike (or even a mini-spike) in operational reactors. Instead, for the next decade or so, we'll likely see a continuation of the stagnation that has been evident for the past quarter-century.4

After that, the Era of Nuclear Decommissioning will be upon us, characterized by a decline in the number of operating reactors; an increasingly unreliable and accident-prone reactor fleet as aging sets in; countless battles over lifespan extensions for aging reactors; an internationalization of anti-nuclear opposition as neighboring countries object to the continued operation of aging reactors; and escalating battles over and problems with decommissioning and waste disposal.5

Construction starts in recent years have averaged just over three per year but, as discussed on Nuclear Monitor #871, there will likely be an average of 8-11 permanent reactor shut-downs per year over the next few decades.6 The industry will attempt to bridge the gap by increasing the rate of construction starts and by deferring permanent reactor shut-downs. But its efforts will most likely only slow rather than stop what seems an inevitable decline. The aging of the reactor fleet is the elephant in the room: the average age of the fleet has just passed 30 years.7

Permanent reactor shut-downs can be deferred ‒ at some cost, and at some additional risk ‒ but they cannot be deferred indefinitely. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) anticipates 325 gigawatts (GW) of retirements by 2050 ‒ that's more than 80% of current global capacity.8 The IAEA estimates the closure of up to 139 GW from 2018‒2030 ‒ that's one-third of current global capacity.8

Jim Little, a veteran of the US nuclear industry, put the problem bluntly in mid-2017 with these rhetorical questions:9

"Would you be willing to continue investing in an established business with flat revenues, increasing costs while competing against an agile field of competitors who enjoy a market advantage of lower costs, quicker deployment schedules and the support of government subsidies and favorable public opinion? Should you stay the course and focus on addressing those challenges or divest? This is the stark choice facing the nuclear power industry today."

World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2019

Mycle Schneider, coordinator of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) states: "There can be no doubt: the renewal rate of nuclear power plants is too slow to guarantee the survival of the technology. The world is experiencing an undeclared 'organic' nuclear phaseout."10

As always, the recently-released edition of the annual WNISR has much of interest and value.7 Some points of interest from WNISR-2019 are noted here:

Global nuclear operating capacity increased to 370 GW in 2018 (excluding 25 GW in long-term outage). That is a new historic maximum, slightly exceeding the previous peak of 368 GW in 2006. But that just means that the 25-year pattern of stagnation is still in evidence:

  • as of mid-2019, there was one less power reactor in operation than in 1989.
  • worldwide nuclear electricity generation of 2,563 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2018 was 3.7% below the historic peak in 2006.
  • the number of operating reactors ‒ 417 as of mid-2019 ‒ remains significantly below the historic peak of 438 in 2002.
  • the share of nuclear power in the electricity mix (10.15% in 2018) is well down on the peak in 1996 (17.5%)
  • the number of power reactors under construction peaked in 1979, while construction starts peaked in 1976.

The number of power reactors under construction globally declined for the sixth year in a row in 2018, from 68 reactors at the end of 2013 to 46 by mid-2019, of which 10 are in China. At least 27 of the 46 units under construction are behind schedule, mostly by several years.

The average age of the world operating nuclear reactor fleet reached 30.1 years by mid-2019, exceeding the figure of 30 years for the first time. A total of 272 reactors, two-thirds of the world fleet, have operated for 31 or more years, including 80 (19%) that have reached 41 years or more.

The average construction time of the latest 63 power reactors in nine countries (including 37 in China) that started up since 2009 was 9.8 years.

Between 1970 and mid-2019, a total of 94 (12% or one-in-eight) of all construction projects were abandoned or suspended in 20 countries at various stages of advancement.

As of mid-2019, 162 of the 181 closed power reactors in the world are awaiting or are in various stages of decommissioning; only 19 have been fully decommissioned. WNISR-2019 discusses the "soaring costs" associated with decommissioning, with challenges coming to the fore as a growing number of nuclear facilities are being shut down.


  • Still no construction start of any commercial reactor in China since December 2016.
  • China will by far miss its Five-Year-Plan 2020 nuclear targets of 58 GW installed and 30 GW under construction.
  • China spent a record US$146 billion on renewables in 2017 ‒ more than half of the world's total ‒ and saw a decline to US$91 billion in 2018, but still close to twice the U.S., the second largest investor with US$48.5 billion.
  • In 2018, electricity production from wind (366 TWh) far exceeded that from nuclear (277 TWh), with solar power catching up quickly (178 TWh). (The same phenomenon is seen in India, where wind power (60 TWh) outpaced nuclear (35 TWh) in 2018, with solar (31 TWh) fast catching up with nuclear.)

Four newcomer countries are building reactors ‒ Bangladesh, Belarus, Turkey and the UAE. The first reactor startup in UAE is at least three years behind schedule. The first unit in Belarus is at least one year delayed. At the Turkish Akkuyu site, cracks were identified in the foundation of the reactor building, leading to replacement work and likely to delays. The project in Bangladesh only started recently.

Small Modular Reactors: The WNISR-2019 chapter on SMRs concludes with these words:

"Although policymakers in many countries continue to be interested in SMRs, it has become evident that they will be even less capable of competing economically than large nuclear plants, which have themselves been increasingly uncompetitive. Thus, even if a few SMR projects get built over the next decade or beyond, typically as a result of massive support from one or more governments, it is unlikely that SMRs could play any significant role in the future electricity sector."

Nuclear power vs. renewables:

  • A record 165 GW of renewable capacity were added to the world's power grids in 2018, up from 157 GW added the previous year. Globally, wind power output grew by 29% in 2018, solar by 13%, nuclear by 2.4%.
  • Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) analysis for the US shows that the total costs of renewables are now below of coal and combined cycle gas. Between 2009 and 2018, utility-scale solar costs came down 88% and wind 69%, while new nuclear costs increased by 23%.
  • In 2018, the reported global investment decisions for the construction of nuclear power totaled around US$33 billion for 6.2 GW, which is less than a quarter of the investment in wind and solar individually (US$134 billion in wind power and US$139 billion in solar).
  • Ten of the 31 countries operating nuclear power reactors generated more electricity in 2018 from non-hydro renewables than from nuclear power (Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Spain, South Africa and the UK). That is one more, South Africa, than in 2017.


1. IAEA, 2018, 'Nuclear Power Reactors in the World',


3. World Nuclear Association, January 2019, 'Plans For New Reactors Worldwide',


5. Nuclear Monitor #856, 29 Jan 2018, '2017 in Review: Nuclear Power',

6. Nuclear Monitor #871, 'Nuclear power: 2018 in review',

7. Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt, Sept 2019, 'World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2019',

8. International Atomic Energy Agency, 2018, 'Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050: 2018 Edition',

9. Jim Little, 18 July 2017, 'Nuclear's Fork in the Road',

10. 24 Sept 2019, 'WNISR2019 Assesses Climate Change and the Nuclear Power Option',