In terms of the volumes of harmful emissions released into the atmosphere, it is one of the least damaging. But given the need to resolve the issue of waste, nuclear power cannot be considered entirely “green”. Are there prospects for nuclear power plants in a green future or will Europe and the world, on its journey to sunny days, abandon nuclear power?
According to data from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world-wide capacity of nuclear power now stands at 394 GW. The number of reactors in operation totals 442 in more than 30 countries. All told, nuclear power stations account for 17 % of generated electricity and about a third of low-carbon energy. There are more nuclear power stations in the United States than anywhere else – more than 90 reactors with a total capacity of 95.5 GW, followed by France with 56 units with a total capacity of 61.4 GW. However, the leading country in terms of electricity generation is still France, where nuclear plants account for 70.6%, while the USA accounts for 19.7%.
About 50 reactors are under construction. Construction sites are focused on China, India and Russia. Countries considering the construction of a nuclear power plant – and new to the industry – are Egypt, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Poland and Saudi Arabia.
Different paths to the future
Forecasts differ over how nuclear energy is likely to develop.
According to the IAEA’s optimistic scenario, the installed capacity of nuclear power stations in the world will rise to 792 GW by 2050. The agency’s last forecast, based on more pessimistic assessments, puts that total at 715 GW. But nuclear’s share of the energy balance against a background of growth in other energy sources, would remain at 10 %. According to the most pessimistic forecast, the capacity of nuclear power stations in the world would remain at the current level of 392 GW or even decline to 360 GW.
“The new IAEA projections show that nuclear power will continue to play an indispensable role in low carbon energy production,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said when presenting the IAEA’s annual outlook in September. “The report’s findings represent an encouraging sign of increasing awareness that nuclear power, which emits no carbon dioxide during operation, is absolutely vital in our efforts to achieve net zero emissions.”
Experts forecast a doubling in power generation over the next 30 years. The number of nuclear power stations will have to rise considerably to maintain the sector’s share in overall energy structure.
Under the IAEA’s optimistic scenario, nuclear power could provide about 12 % of world power by 2040 – and not 11 % as the agency had earlier forecast. Under the pessimistic outlook, its share would account for no more than 6 %.
BP forecast a rise in energy production by nuclear stations of 42 % by 2050 according to its traditional scenario – and a rise of 164 % under the “net zero” scenario. The international Energy Agency (IEA) predicts increases of 28-62 % by 2040 and 50-100 % by 2070.
During the COVID pandemic, renewable energy sources surged ahead to such an extent that nuclear power gave way to them. In 2020, the output of nuclear power stations in Europe declined by 10 % — the biggest single drop in 30 years.
Output of power at nuclear stations in 2020 fell by 4 % mainly because of the steep decline in the EU, Japan and the United States. In the EU, demand for electricity dipped, largely because of the pandemic. But in Russia and China, output of nuclear power stations rose by 5 % and 3 % respectively.
According to forecasts by the International Energy Agency, output at nuclear stations is to rise by 2 %. In the second half of last year and the beginning of this year, seven new reactors were brought on stream and by the end of 2021 10 more may be brought into service, including four in China. But year-end results of nuclear power output will still be lower than in 2019, prior to the onset of the pandemic.
Nuclear power remains a major source of low-carbon generation in developed countries. The IEA forecasts that the level of nuclear power production in the United States will continue to decline. Four reactors will be taken out of service and output of power will be 3 % less than in 2019. In Japan and Europe, the IEA forecasts growth of 6% and 2 % respectively and the increase in developing countries will exceed 5 %.
Data from GlobalData show that a number of countries in the period from 2020 to 2030 intend to pull a part of their nuclear power stations out of service and that means that by 2030 about 12 countries will be cutting back production of nuclear power by 30 GW compared to current levels. Germany, for example, will cut its capacity to half of 2010 levels and intends in the near future to close it down, to stop its use entirely by 2030.
On the other hand, countries like Belarus, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are bringing capacity on stream. In total, by 2025, 49 new reactors with a combined capacity of 53.5 GW are to be constructed. The most active players are China, India, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates.
Experts believe that the share of nuclear power is unlikely to fall significantly between now and 2030 in view of the new reactors being brought on stream in China. The country’s aim is to become the world’s largest nuclear power producer over the next decade by reaching a total capacity of 130 GW. According to GlobalData’s forecast, by next year already, China will become the world’s second largest producer of nuclear power and by 2026 it could even overtake the United States. China has already announced plans to bring into service six to eight rectors per year.
Zero carbon and reliable
It is rare to hear nuclear power described as “clean energy”, but the sector is the second largest source of low-carbon power generation in the world after hydroelectric, the U.S. Department of Energy says.
Nuclear power results in reduced carbon dioxide emissions. It produces electricity thanks to the process of fission, or splitting, of uranium atoms and the resulting release of heat. No emissions – as characterised by fossil fuels.
According to data from the U.S. Nuclear Energy Institute, in 2019, nuclear power stations enabled the United States to avoid 496 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions – equivalent to the emissions of 100 million cars.
What is more, nuclear power stations occupy less space, especially when compared to solar or wind power stations. A standard installation of 1,000 MW in the United States requires about 2.6 sq. km. while a wind farm needs an area 360 times greater and a solar power installation an area 75 times larger. A typical nuclear reactor can produce the same amount of energy as 3 million solar panels or more than 400 wind turbines.
And nuclear power produces small amounts of waste. As noted by the U.S Department of Energy, the amount of spent nuclear fuel used by power stations over 60 years could be placed on a football field at a depth of 9 metres. And it can be reprocessed to be used again in reactors.
Energy produced by nuclear stations is relatively inexpensive. True, construction of a nuclear plant is costly, but running costs are low. Its price is predictable and the cost of uranium is not subject to the same significant fluctuations that affect oil gas and even coal.
But the main advantage of nuclear power remains its reliability. It produces power 24 hours a day, seven days a week without interruption – without regard to the weather, sunlight or the temperature outside.
Prisoner of Reputation
The main argument advanced by opponents of nuclear power is the risk of accidents.
An operating nuclear power station produces waste which remains radioactive over the course of thousands of years. No technologies have yet been devised to dispose completely and safely of this waste. It is kept in special protected containers in underground storage areas.
Building a nuclear plant is expensive and uranium deposits are finite. Uranium ore can be found in a number of countries, but building a station requires approval from a number of international bodes in a complicated process.
Uranium is a finite source of energy. Experts believe that given levels of consumption of uranium, current supplies could last about 200 years. But if the number of power stations increases, these reserves could be used up more quickly.
As of now, some nuclear facilities use elements other than uranium – like thorium, for instance – an area studied by Global Energy Prize laureate Caro Rubbia. But for the moment, these reactors have not been mass produced.
This could make construction of new stations less attractive if investors cannot be certain that a station will not have its operating life extended beyond initially planned limits.
And let us not forget plans for a gradual phasing out of nuclear energy in Europe, where many countries, like Germany, Switzerland and Belgium plan by 2030 to withdraw from service significant nuclear operating capacity.
World-wide disputes – just what colour was that station?
It remains a fact that nuclear power has low carbon emissions and is more reliable than wind and solar power. Many academics view nuclear plants as a means of replacing coal and gas, thereby serving to strengthen renewable energy sources.
In October, 10 EU countries issued a joint statement about the need to develop nuclear power and to designate it a “green” part of the solution to the energy crisis. These countries were: Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
“It is, therefore, absolutely necessary that nuclear power is included in the European taxonomy framework by the end of 2021,” economy and energy ministers from the 10 countries said in the statement. “To win the climate battle, we need nuclear power. It is, for us all, a crucial and reliable asset for a low-carbon future.”
The European Union’s Executive Commission is completing its classification of which types of energy may be included in the categories of sustainable investment in the EU and the inclusion of nuclear power remains an issue in dispute. France says it is vital to include nuclear power stations in the list of low-carbon energy sources, while Germany opposes this.
An analysis conducted by the Commission revealed no scientifically-based proof that nuclear power causes greater damage to the health of residents or the environment than other technologies of producing energy, the Commission’s research centre said. Including nuclear power in the list of would give the sector access to improved financing conditions.
As countries supporting nuclear power have declared, nuclear is the very source of energy that will enable consumers to avoid the risks of price volatility and allow for independent sources of energy and electricity.
Nuclear plants can help with the “energy transition” not only by providing stability in power generation but also, for example, in producing hydrogen. Several countries have already begun using technologies in producing hydrogen by using power produced at nuclear plants.
It is clear that the nuclear industry needs to change its image, to be reborn in the world consciousness as the cleanest and most reliable form of generating power.