Resounding failures in the West
The growth of nuclear power in China contrasts with the resounding failure of reactor construction projects in the United States, United Kingdom and France.
In the United States, the only reactor construction project is the Vogtle project in Georgia, which has two AP1000 reactors. The last estimated price US$34 billion is more than double the US$14–15.5 billion estimate at the start of construction.
Costs continue to rise and the project only survives thanks to multi-billion dollar taxpayers bailouts.
The VC Summer project in South Carolina, which included two AP1000 reactors, was abandoned in 2017 after spending about $9 billion.
In 2006, Westinghouse said it could build an AP1000 reactor for as little as US$1.4 billion ‒ 12 times less than the current estimate for Vogtle.
The golden rule of the nuclear economy
In the late 2000s, the estimated cost to build an EPR reactor in the UK was £2 billion. The current cost estimate for two EPR reactors under construction at Hinkley Point ‒ the only reactor construction project in the UK ‒ is £32.7 billion.
Thus, the current cost estimate is more than eight times higher than the initial estimate of £2 billion per reactor.
The only reactor construction project currently in France is an EPR reactor under construction at Flamanville. The current estimate of the costs of €19.1 billion is almost six times higher than the initial estimate of 3.3 billion euros. Lower figures are quoted by EDF and others – but these usually exclude financial costs.
Inflated cost estimates in the United States, United Kingdom and France have been multiplied by 12, 8 and 6. Thus, we can lay down the golden rule of nuclear economics: add a zero to the estimates of the industry and your estimate will be much closer to the mark than theirs.
“Turbocharged” growth of renewables
The stagnation of nuclear contrasts sharply with the growth of renewables. Renewable extension of about 320 GW last year was 76 times greater than nuclear growth of 4.2 GW.
The same pattern was evident in 2021: nuclear capacity decreased by 0.4 GW while the growth in renewable capacity amounted to 314 GW, including 257 GW of non-hydro renewables.
Renewable energy, including hydroelectricity, accounted for 29.1% of global electricity production in 2022 according to the Electricity Market Report 2023 International Energy Agency report – more than three times nuclear’s share of 9.4 percent.
Nuclear has been outmoded by non-hydro renewables and fell below 10% for the first time in decades.
The growth of renewable energies is turbocharged as countries seek to strengthen energy security, the IEA said in December when releasing its Renewable energies 2022 report.
Renewables will soon overtake coal and gas
IEA projects that in 2025, renewable electricity production will represent 34.6% of total world production and that renewable energies will have overtaken coal and gas.
IEA projects that in 2027, renewable electricity production will have reached 38% of total world production, with shares falling from 2022 to 27 for all other sources: coal, gas, nuclear and oil.
Wind and solar photovoltaic are expected to more than double to account for nearly 20% of global electricity production in 2027.
IEA projects that China will install nearly half of the world’s new renewable energy capacity from 2022 to 2027, with growth accelerating despite the phasing out of wind and solar PV subsidies.
In China in 2021, wind (656 terawatt hours ‒ TWh), solar (327 TWh) and hydro (1300 TWh) combined generated six times more electricity than nuclear (383 TWh).
China, the United States and India will double their production of renewable energy
IEA projects that China, the United States and India will all double their renewable energy generation capacity from 2022 to 27, accounting for two-thirds of global growth.
Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA said in December 2022: “Renewables were already growing rapidly, but the global energy crisis has propelled them into an extraordinary new phase of even faster growth as countries seek to leverage their energy security advantages.
“The world should add as much renewable energy in the next five years as it did in the previous 20 years.
“This is a clear example of how the current energy crisis can be a historic turning point towards a cleaner and more secure energy system. The continued acceleration of renewable energy is essential to help keep the door open to limiting the global warming to 1.5°C.
Nuclear risks in Ukraine
Meanwhile, there is an ongoing risk of nuclear disaster in Ukraine. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has published a report noting that several of Ukraine’s five nuclear power plants and other facilities have come under direct bombardment over the past year.
The IAEA report states: “Each of the IAEA’s seven indispensable pillars for ensuring nuclear safety and security in armed conflict has been compromised, including the physical integrity of nuclear facilities; operation of safety and security systems; staff working conditions; supply chains, communication channels, radiation monitoring and emergency arrangements; and critical offsite power supply.
The loss of offsite power, and thus the reliance on diesel generators to power reactor cooling, greatly increases the risk of nuclear fuel meltdown and greatly increases the risk of nuclear disaster.
The IAEA report further states: “The bombings, aerial attacks, reduced workforce, difficult working conditions, frequent off-site power cuts, supply chain disruptions and unavailability of spare parts, as well as deviations from planned activities and normal operations, have impacted every nuclear facility and many activities involving radioactive sources in Ukraine.
“The reliability of the national electricity infrastructure necessary for the safe and secure operation of nuclear facilities has also been affected and, for the first time since the start of the armed conflict, all sites (nuclear power plants), including the (Chernobyl ) site, concurrently experienced an offsite power loss on November 23, 2022.”
In addition to the horrors a nuclear disaster would inflict on Ukrainians, it would surely lead to a global death spiral for nuclear energy.