Nuclear power is unique among low-carbon power sources for many reasons, but one is that it is not increasing worldwide. There is slightly less nuclear power generation worldwide than there was in 2005. Since that time, some new reactors have gone online, but more have been taken offline. This trend is going to continue unless there are substantial increases in installations, for the simple fact that nuclear power plants worldwide are rapidly aging, with many past their expected closing date.
Nuclear power generation in 2020 was 0.28 TW worldwide, from 409 operating reactors. The United States generates more than any other country, with a 0.1 TW nameplate capacity which generated 0.09 TW on average in 2020. The high capacity factor of around 90% reflects the fact that nearly all plants are run as baseload plants.
Nuclear reactors have provided around 20% of US electricity each year from 1990-2020. There are 94 reactors in the country at 56 different plants. In Washington state, the Columbia Generating Station in Hanford is a 1.1 GW facility that provides about 10% of the state’s electricity. It was the only plant built out of five proposed by the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS). The failures of WPPSS, including a giant two-thirds completed structure that was abandoned in 1982, led its critics to pronounce the acronym “whoops.”
There was no groundbreaking on nuclear constructions in the United States between 1977 and 2012, due in part to the Three Mile Island and Church Rock disasters in 1979. An indication of the global lack of growth in the nuclear industry can be seen from the fact that there were no new constructions in the US for 35 years, yet the US is still first worldwide in nameplate capacity and power generation.
Many industrialists and investors were hoping for a “nuclear renaissance” due to concern about climate change in the early 2000s. There were large loan guarantees proposed by the Obama administration, and this led to the beginning of four new reactors in South Carolina and Georgia. The status of these four projects is indicative of how the rebirth looks more like the death throes of the nuclear industry. The two projects in South Carolina were cancelled after four years of work and over 9 billion dollars in wasted funds. The ratepayers of South Carolina were charged for the project, even including profits for the company responsible, despite the fact that 0 W (0.000000000000 TW) were delivered, and none ever will. This is indicative of the privatization of profits and socialization of losses that is associated with neoliberal political systems of the last few decades.
In Georgia, the projects look like they are going to be completed in
late 2022 and 2023 (May/June 2023 and late 2023), but they are currently seven years late and $16 billion over budget, over double the initial expected costs. The total cost of these two reactors, which each are 1.1 GW nameplate capacity projects, is over $13/W. This is over twice as large as wind and solar, even when typical capacity factors are taken into account. Some are forecasting even longer delays, and larger cost overruns. Georgians have paid billions on their electricity bills already to fund these reactors, despite the fact that no electricity has been delivered.
The lack of new constructions and age of constructions means that the US fleet is aging, with 90% of reactors over 30 years in age. Two-thirds of the world’s reactors are 30+ years old, and 20% are over their planned lifetime. Some have argued that lifetime extensions should be allowed out to 60 years, but this would likely require expensive modernizations and repairs.
France is second in the world in nuclear power, with about half of the capacity of the United States, but this provides about 80% of their electricity. China is the main country where nuclear power generation is increasing. Russia, South Korea, and Japan each have large nuclear capacity. The fleets in all these countries except China have a large fraction of their reactors that are over 30 years old (80% in Europe, 60% in Russia, and 45% in Japan).
New constructions of smaller nuclear reactors are starting to be approved, supported with large funding support from the US government. In Washington state, X-Energy has received grants for almost half of the projected $2.2 billion cost of four small reactors, with 320 MW total nameplate capacity. The key novel feature of the smaller reactors is the potential for load-following generation, which could be used to balance intermittent generation from wind and solar, or rapid changes in load. Gates-backed Terra Power is building a reactor in Wyoming, with $2 billion (half the cost) in support from the Department of Energy. This reactor would use molten salt to store heat, and increase generation from 345 MW to 500 MW at peak times. Some researchers, including from the Union of Concerned Scientists, have been skeptical of the promises made by these companies, including about safety, waste and proliferation concerns.
Environmental justice objections
The environmental justice community, as outlined in the Hoodwinked in the Hothouse, third edition report, lists four objections to nuclear power: too dirty, too dangerous, too expensive and too slow. You can read their objections, including citations to scientific literature, straight from the source, but we’ll cover them in brief. “Too dirty” refers to the fact that the extraction, processing, and enrichment of uranium each produce large quantities of waste, including some that is radioactive for millions of years. These facilities are concentrated in Indigenous communities and other communities of color, and many of the abandoned mines have meant that the former residents cannot return to their homes.
“Too dangerous” refers both to the chance of extreme disaster in plants, as seen in the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, and the mining or enrichment related disasters. The extreme meltdown disasters, although unlikely, are perhaps increasing in possibility as the fleet ages while sea levels rise and extreme weather events increase in frequency. An example of an impactful mining disaster was Church Rock, New Mexico, where 94 million gallons of radioactive tailings were released, flowing onto Diné (Navajo) land and infiltrating drinking water. Historically, much of the mining for United States military and electricity uses has occurred on Diné land, and the tribal members who worked in the mines have suffered a variety of negative health effects.
Nuclear waste needs to be kept away from life for tens of thousands of years, until it eventually decays into less harmful substances. Facilities have been constructed hundreds of meters deep into bedrock, including the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository in Finland. The documentary Into Eternity ventures into the Onkalo facility, pondering the question of what world the facility might face in 100,000 years, at the end of its scheduled lifetime. With nuclear waste storage facilities that must exist for so long, there is the concern of how to warn future humans who might have forgotten about the site’s radioactivity. Visual warnings are created to prepare for the situation of all current languages being forgotten.
There is still no solution for long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste in the United States, so most is stored on-site at various plants around the world. Yucca Mountain in Nevada was a long-planned site for this, despite its sacredness to the Western Shoshone people. It was originally sited in 1977 and approved in 2002, before being cancelled in 2011. Although the Trump administration discussed restarting the project, it now appears to be dead in the water.
“Too expensive” and “too slow” are characterized by the recent US examples discussed above, but these are true around the world as well. The levelized cost of energy for nuclear averages around $0.155/kWh, nearly three times larger than wind or solar. Combined with the fact that nuclear cannot be run in load-following mode, it seems ill-equipped to deal with the wind- and solar-centered world of the future.
Over half of all reactors ever proposed in the US have failed to complete construction. Given the increasing severity of climate impacts, many climate justice advocates argue that new nuclear power is simply too slow and too risky. Nuclear advocates tend to argue that having more baseload electricity generation will make it easier to reach 100% goals, given that we have to electrify so many other sources, like transportation and industry. The future of nuclear power worldwide will be decided long before the last bit of nuclear waste decays into something harmless to life.