Nuclear energy is ‘too expensive and slow to save climate’: report

Umar Ali 24 September 2019 (Last Updated September 24th, 2019 14:27)

Nuclear energy is being outcompeted by renewables and is an inefficient solution to carbon emissions, according to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report.

Nuclear energy is ‘too expensive and slow to save climate’: report
Nuclear energy’s share of the global gross energy mix has declined from its 17.46% peak in 1996 to 10.15% in 2018 . Credit: GorissM.

Nuclear energy is being outcompeted by renewable energy sources and is an inefficient solution to carbon emissions, according to the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) published on 24 September 2019.

Lead author of the report Mycle Scheider said: “Stabilising the climate is urgent, nuclear power is slow. It meets no technical or operational need that these low-carbon competitors cannot meet better, cheaper, and faster.

“Even sustaining economically-distressed reactors saves less carbon per dollar and per year than reinvesting its avoidable operating cost (let alone its avoidable new subsidies) into cheaper efficiency and renewables.”

According to the report, nuclear energy’s share of the global gross energy mix has declined from its 17.46% peak in 1996 to 10.15% in 2018 despite an increase in global nuclear operating capacity to 370 gigawatts (GW). The nuclear share of global commercial primary energy consumption has remained at around 4.4% since 2014.

The WNISR notes that ten nuclear countries, including those with ambitious nuclear programmes such as China, generated more power with renewables than with fission energy. Renewables accounted for 95% of new electricity generating capacity in the European Union added since September 2018.

The report estimates that the average construction time for reactors worldwide was ten years, significantly longer than the World Nuclear Association’s estimated construction time of between five and eight years. Nuclear reactors are also slow to start and a number have closed, with nine units closing over 2018 and a further five units expected to close over 2019.

These slow development times for nuclear power plants have significant implications for global climate goals, as existing fossil-fuelled plants emit more CO2 when used as substitutes for nuclear options.

To maintain the status quo in the decade to 2030, the WNISR estimates that 188 new reactors would have to be connected to the global energy grid, which is more than triple the number of startups achieved since 2009. This problem is compounded by the decrease in global construction of nuclear reactors, with construction starting on five reactors in 2018 compared to ten in 2013 and 15 in 2010.

The report says: “To protect the climate, we must abate the most carbon at the least cost and in the least time, so we must pay attention to carbon, cost, and time, not to carbon alone.”

The report also states that nuclear power is more expensive than renewables. Nuclear energy costs around $112-189 per megawatt hour (MWh) compared to $26-56MWh for onshore wind and $36-44MWh for solar power. Levelised cost estimates for solar and wind also dropped by 88% and 69% respectively, while they increased by 23% for nuclear power.

This expense is reflected in lower investments in nuclear power, with global investment decisions for the construction of nuclear power totalling around $33bn for 6.2GW, less than a quarter of the investment in wind and solar individually.