News in Depth: Global Nuclear Growth in Context

This week, in an article for The Energy Collective, Jesse Jenkins, a writer and current PhD student in Engineering Systems at MIT, aimed at putting the growth of renewable energy in perspective. The article provides more than just an overview of renewable energy however, it also provides some interesting context for discussion of the future of nuclear power.

A year in review: thinking about energy capacity worldwide

Before thinking about what comes next in our energy future, it’s important to have some context. In his article, Jenkins provides a succinct summary of the progress made in the last full calendar year:

The world added 103 gigawatts (GW) of renewable power capacity in 2014… That figure excludes large hydropower projects… and is dominated by wind and solar, which saw growth of 49 GW and 46 GM respectively. More importantly, the share of renewable electricity… in the global electricity mix ticked upwards from 8.5 percent in 2013 to 9.1 percent in 2014.

As is noted, that figure is close to the 10.5 percent of global electricity supplied by nuclear power.


(Image Source: The Energy Collective)

A link to the International Energy Agency’s (IAE) World Energy Outlook 2014 Factsheet is also provided. The factsheet highlights some additional key points:

  • 434 operating commercial reactors worldwide at the end of 2013 (capacity: 392 GW)
  • Nuclear power has avoided the release of an estimated 56 Gt of CO2 emissions since 1971
  • Almost 200 of the 434 reactors operating at the of 2013 are to be retired before 2040

Finally, Jenkins articulates two visions for future growth in renewables. In the first scenario, growth is linear at about 100GW per year. In the second, growth compounds at a 10 percent per year rate. As he notes, neither scenario is perfect, but they “bracket the realm of most likely outcomes.”

What’s next for nuclear power and renewables?

The IAE’s factsheet provides an apt summary of the challenge ahead for the nuclear energy sector, “the industry will need to manage an unprecedented rate of decommissioning, while also building substantial new capacity for those reactors that are replaced.” It is clear that the next few decades will be filled with difficult problems: how do we handle the decommissioning of so many reactors, how do we balance short and long term cost economic and political concerns, and how do we safely and steadily grow nuclear capacity, especially in the so-called BRIC countries?

From a review of conference topics and recent news articles, it’s clear that the industry is well aware of these challenges and is making positive strides. As we’ve highlighted here at Future of Nuclear, companies are continuing to develop new, smaller reactors that can be deployed in both industrialized and developing markets. In addition, governments continue to explore how to safely deal with radioactive waste. In all, the challenges are great but not insurmountable.

This, finally, brings us back to the topic of renewables. As highlighted earlier, there is no single panacea for our energy needs or a clear idea of what the future will bring. Powering a diverse world takes a diverse set of solutions. As Mr. Jenkins points out in his article, the best way to ensure that low-carbon sources continue to grow is to not put all of our eggs in one basket. What is needed is a toolkit of locally relevant and sustainable technologies that can respond to the growing need for reliable, safe, and clean energy worldwide. That is the industries’ north star. The trick, as it were, is to keeps steering towards it.