News in Depth: Reflecting on the World Nuclear Industry Status Report

INTRODUCTION

In this week’s News in Depth, we take a look at the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2015, linked here (and reported on by Katherine Tweed at The Energy Collective). The report’s author’s lay out a number of statistics and cover developments in nuclear energy around the world, concluding that innovation is lacking and progress slow. We will look at some of the report’s key findings in brief here and hope that you, the readers, can voice your feedback on the report and its findings.

THE REPORT’S FINDINGS

To start, here is a selection of key points from the report:

  • Nuclear plant construction starts plunge from fifteen in 2010 to three in 2014
  • Three quarters of all reactor construction projects worldwide are delayed. Five units have been “under construction” for over 30 years
  • The share of nuclear power in the global electricity mix is stable at about 11% (and has been for three years now)
  • Since 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was signed, 694 TWh of wind power and 185 TWh of solar power capacity have been built. Nuclear has only added 147 TWh
  • The average age of reactors is now 28.8 years. In the U.S., one third (33) of reactors have operated for more than 40 years

Generation

Source: World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2015

Jonathon Porritt, a well known British environmentalist, wrote the forward to the report. His conclusion from the data was that any hope of a global nuclear renaissance was being eclipsed by the rapid development of decentralized renewable energy and storage technologies. In other words, the issue for nuclear in his opinion is its pace of change, or lack thereof.

As Porritt puts it,

The consistent history of innovation in the nuclear energy industry is one of periodic spasms of enthusiasm for putative breakthrough technologies, leading to the commitment of untold billions of investment dollars, followed by a slow, unfolding story of disappointment caused by intractable design and cost issues.

Porritt remains skeptical that future innovations will ever translate to effective applications for energy production (he specifically references Small Modular Reactor (SMR) technology, Generation IV reactors, and thorium technology). In the report itself, many issues relating to the real-world applications of nuclear power are highlighted. In a review of the UK Hinkley Point C project and Areva’s recent financial troubles, the report concludes that “few have started to radically adjust to new circumstances.”

Another noted issue area is that of nuclear’s centralized generation paradigm. As the report notes, nuclear is in some ways incompatible with the decentralized model of energy production that has many cost advantages and flexibility.  Amory Lovins, Chief Scientist at the Rock Mountain Institute, is quoted saying that renewables, which are in their own nature small and modular, can scale down much faster and leverage economies of scale much more effectively. In his words, “Nuclear SMRs can never catch up.”

It’s hard not to read the report, and Porritt’s forward, as a kind of epitaph for the nuclear sector. Porritt’s description of a “static, top-heavy, monstrously expensive” world of nuclear reads so negatively that the future seems bleak. However, with the report’s main points and Porritt’s view in mind, we must ask new questions. What is left unsaid in the report? What are the positive attributes of nuclear energy that are not discussed? Is the analysis of the numbers in the report biased in any way? In the end, what then is the future of nuclear?

OPEN TO DISCUSSION

We hope that this report can be a starting point for discussion in the industry and beyond. While experts may be familiar with many of these figures and facts, they are still new to many. As a result, this can be an opportunity to talk, reflect, and work towards a better future. Nuclear energy presents many challenges – from initial design to waste storage – and they are not solved overnight. Indeed, these things take time. Sometimes, more time than desired. But the last half-century has seen many moments of rapid progress and achievement. They are moments punctuated by stasis, yes, but it is over the long run that we see great progress.

We welcome your thoughts on these issues and many more. Here’s to what comes next.