Is Nuclear Power Being Phased Out?

on December 08, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Nuclear is not so hot these days.

The percentage of nuclear electrical generation worldwide is shrinking as countries slow or halt new construction and in some cases even close existing plants in favor of other types of power, according to the latest Vital Signs Online (VSO) report released by the Washington DC-based think tank Worldwatch Institute. Although nuclear provided 6% of the world’s energy in 2001, it constituted only 5% of the world’s energy portfolio in 2010.

While the Fukushima reactor meltdown has had a large impact accelerating the trend of nuclear retirements, nuclear power’s growth has also been slowing in recent years because it is very expensive to build and there have long been public concerns about its safety.

“Not only is nuclear too risky from a health and security point of view, it’s also just too expensive,” said Director of Worldwatch’s Climate and Energy program, Alexander Ochs. “Whereas renewable energy sources are growing at rates of up to 70% and more on an annual basis, nuclear energy is the only major energy technology experiencing negative growth.”

The report found that world nuclear capacity fell from 375.5 GW at the end of 2010 to 366.5 GW in 2011. Only four countries added new nuclear between 2009 and 2010: The Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia and the United States.

And in 2011, only two countries, India and Pankistan, are constructing new reactors. During the first 10 months of 2011, 13 nuclear reactors were closed globally, reducing the world’s total from 441 in the beginning of this year to 433 currently.

“It’s too early to conclude that nuclear energy is beginning a long-tern decline, but these numbers can hardly encourage the industry,” Worldwide President Robert Engelman said.

While it did not do the job on its own, Fukushima did have a huge impact on the industry.

Germany made a public decree against nuclear this year when it chose to close all of its reactors after the Fukushima disaster and took 8 GW offline in this year alone. It was joined by Switzerland, which also decided to phase out its nuclear power. In Japan itself, only 10 of the country’s 54 reactors are operating and connected to the grid, and the country has been using back-up gas-fueled plants to compensate.

Only in China has growth continued on a steady pace, with the country accounting for 10 of the 16 global reactor construction starts in 2010. In 2010, China initiated installation of 10 GW of nuclear capacity, making up 62% of worldwide construction. The country currently operates 27 nuclear reactors and has 27 GW under construction in total.

“Overall, the likelihood of China significantly reducing its aggressive growth in nuclear generation remains low as the country seeks to meet its rapidly growing energy demand and ambitious carbon dioxide reduction targets,” said Worldwatch MAP Fellow Matt Lucky, who authored the report.

In the United States, growth is also not likely to stop even if has slowed. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is on track to approve four new reactors. In 2010, the Obama administration approved $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors and in February 2011 upped that amount by an additional $36 billion.

Photo Caption: A picture taken on December 5, 2011 in Nogent-sur-Seine shows a sign reading ‘protected area, no trespassing’ on the wires fence of the French nuclear plant after Greenpeace activists managed to sneak into the plant in what they said was a bid to highlight the dangers of atomic energy.