THE GROWING DEMAND FOR ELECTRICITY across the globe and the necessity of developing and using safe, reliable and economical sources of electricity are pushing countries to build new nuclear reactors.
Globally, there are more than 400 active nuclear reactors that are currently in operation and 54 nuclear reactors are under construction in 17 different countries.
There are around 475 nuclear reactors that have not started construction yet, but have been announced or have started acquiring permits and finances.
There are several types of reactors, but the pressurised water reactor (PWR) is the most popular one with around 70% of all active reactors being of this type. Other reactor types that are currently active are — pressurised heavy water reactor (PHWR), boiling water reactor (BWR), light water graphite reactor (LWGR), gas cooled reactor (GCR) and fast breeder reactor (FBR).
Thirty-two countries currently operate nuclear reactors to generate electricity. While some countries such as Armenia and Slovenia operate just one reactor each, the USA operates 95 and France 57. Countries with significant nuclear power capacity are: USA, France, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea with more than 25 gigawatts (GW) installed capacity each. Canada and Ukraine operate around 13GW each. The UK, Germany, Sweden, Spain, India and Belgium have 5–10GW installed nuclear power capacity each. Another 16 countries have one or more reactors each, with installed capacity ranging from 0.4GW to 4GW.
Several countries have upcoming decommissioning during 2020–2030 and 12 countries are set to have less nuclear power in 2030 than they do today. While some of these are decommissioning old nuclear plants and do not have new capacity coming up, some countries are proactively phasing out nuclear power and switching to renewables.
Germany has already reduced its nuclear capacity to less than half its total in 2010 and is on course to phase out nuclear power by 2022. Belgium, Taiwan, and Switzerland are implementing similar programmes to phase out nuclear power by 2030.
Meanwhile, Belarus, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are in the process of acquiring new nuclear capacity with Belarus scheduled to commission its first reactor in 2020. UAE is the latest country to add nuclear power to its power mix with a 1345MW reactor due to start up this year.
Overall there are 49 nuclear reactors being constructed and set to add 53.5GW capacity during 2020–2025, of which 13.4GW or 25% is set to be commissioned in China alone through 13 new reactors. India, South Korea and UAE are the other countries with significant nuclear capacities under construction and scheduled to be commissioned during 2020–2025. These three countries are set to add 17.2GW during the period.
Currently, Europe, Asia Pacific, and North America together operate 98% of the global nuclear power capacity (see Figure 1). Within this group the balance is set to change significantly during 2020–2030, as the share of Asia Pacific is set to increase significantly.
The Middle East and Africa, and South and Central America regions each currently have about 1% of the global nuclear capacity each and neither of the regions is set to make any major additions in capacity.
In the Middle East and Africa region, only South Africa, UAE, and Iran currently have nuclear capacity. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are set to have their first nuclear reactors during 2020–2030.
In South and Central America, only Brazil and Argentina have nuclear capacity and no other country plans to build a reactor any time soon.
Capacity and generation
The global installed capacity of nuclear power in 2010 was 375.8GW, of which more than 100GW was in the USA. In 2011 and 2012, this fell slightly in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster as some reactors in Japan were permanently shut down. Several reactors in Germany were also shut down in the same year as part of the long term policy of that country to phase out nuclear power.
During 2012–2019, the total installed capacity increased by 30GW and reached 404.7GW, despite a few plants having been shut down around the world. This was because there were additions in China exceeding 37GW during this period.
During 2020–2030, twelve countries are expected to reduce their nuclear capacities by shutting down and decommissioning existing plants, thereby leading to a capacity reduction of over 30GW. However, with China alone expected to add over 80GW during this period, the total installed capacity globally is expected to increase significantly from 404.7GW in 2019 to 496.4GW in 2030 (see Figure 2).
In 2000, the share of nuclear power in the total global power capacity was slightly over 10%. Despite significant capacity additions during 2000–2019, the share of nuclear power has reduced to 5.4%.
Nuclear’s share of total electricity generated globally has reduced from 17.2% in 2000 to approximately 10.2% today, despite increased capacity and the improved efficiency of modern reactors. Other technologies have simply expanded faster during this period (mainly thermal power during 2000-2010 and large scale solar and wind power facilities after 2010).
During 2020–2030 share of nuclear power may may not fall as much due to China’s large number of upcoming nuclear reactors.
Impact of COVID-19
The nuclear power industry treats safety as its most crucial aspect due to the nature of the technology. This makes the safety, health and well-being of nuclear power plant employees a core part of a plant’s operations. This being the case, every nuclear reactor site — whether under construction, operational, or undergoing decommissioning, has contingency plans in place, including one for a pandemic situation. This has helped most reactors continue their operations smoothly even after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In many reactor sites, the non-essential workforce has been transitioned into a remote working protocol and given necessary equipment and accesses. Crucial workers have been asked to stay back at the sites. Arrangements have been made for an extended stay at reactor sites so they do not risk infection, because if crucial employees are infected, the plant may have to shut down.
Very few active nuclear reactors have reported lay-offs. Some sites under construction have reported a reduction in the number of workers — notably Vogtle in the USA, see below — but work at most continues.
Even the few sites that initially suspended construction during the coronavirus outbreak have now resumed work. A few sites have continued construction activity, but with reduced workforce in order to maintain social distancing measures. This may lead to slight delays in completion of the construction and testing at some reactor sites, in turn leading to a possible delay in the commissioning of these reactors.
Overall, in the short term there have not been any radical effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the nuclear power industry. There has not been any significant job loss, nor has generation been stalled. Remote working arrangements that would otherwise never be considered in the nuclear power industry have been tested and implemented and adapted within in a matter of weeks. In the longer term, it is plausible that some reactors may be required to shut due to one of several conditions including a more aggressive spread of the virus, spread to the crucial workforce of a reactor, or a significant fall in demand for electricity.
Drivers of the nuclear power market
1. China’s nuclear ambition
China is set to have the largest nuclear power capacity by 2026 surpassing the USA and France. By 2025, China is set to add 40GW of new nuclear capacity and another 40GW during 2026–2030. Apart from this reactors with another 200GW of combined capacity have been proposed. China has also shown interest in installing a large number of small floating nuclear reactors stationed on vessels docked in shipyards. These capacity additions and China’s increasing interest in becoming a leading global supplier of nuclear reactors will drive the market the next two decades.
2. Smaller nations’ wish for energy independence
Some countries that currently have little to no nuclear power capacity look at the technology as a viable option to increase their energy independence and the diversity of their energy portfolio. Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Belarus currently have no nuclear power capacity but have their reactors in different stages of completion. Turkey and Egypt aim to have around 5GW nuclear power each by 2030. Saudi Arabia will have close to 3GW by 2030. The desire to strengthen and diversify power portfolios in other new markets may lead to further increased interest in nuclear power.
3. Emission reduction commitments and targets
Nuclear power generates electricity through a fission reaction leading to heat generation without any substance being burned, making it one of the cleanest sources of electricity. Several countries are under pressure to reduce their green house gas emissions and have made commitments to the international community over emission reductions. In their Intended Nationally Determined Commitments submitted after the Paris Climate Talks in 2015, countries committed to reduce their emissions significantly and a lot of these emission reduction strategies were based on increasing clean electricity sources –
making nuclear power a viable option to achieve these commitments.
Challenges faced by the nuclear power market
1. Resistance from environmental groups
International environmental organisations such as Greenpeace have consistently shown their disapproval for building new nuclear capacity and also extending the life of ageing nuclear power plants, citing the reduced safety levels of reactors past their design lives. There are more than 30 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) whose agendas include the phase-out of nuclear energy globally. Their opposition to new capacity may directly affect new plants from being commissioned. In addition their opposition to life extension may make developers skeptical about the future of the plants beyond their design age and the return on investment if life extension is not approved after the initial design life. Many of these NGOs have dedicated groups studying the negative aspects of reactor life extension. They argue that refurbished old reactors have an increased risk of safety breaches and higher chances of accidents. Developers and investors will find a nuclear power project less attractive if there is a good chance that the plant will only be allowed to operate for its design life and if life extension is unlikely.
2. Phase-out plans in Europe
After the Fukushima disaster took place in Japan, several governments revisited their nuclear power strategy. Several European countries decided to completely do away with new-build projects that had not yet started construction, while some planned both to outlaw new builds and decommission old plants. Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Taiwan have significant nuclear capacities but plan to shut down all reactors before 2030. In order to phase out nuclear power, the reactors that reach the end of their design lives and licences are denied licence renewals and eventually shut down. This way, the economics of these reactors are not disturbed and, while the reactors operate until their licences expire, other technologies eventually take their place and their potential market. This has a severe effect on the nuclear power market making it almost non-existent in the next few years in countries with such plans.
3. COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has so far not had any adverse effects on the nuclear power market in any country. Only a very small number of reactor constructions were suspended in March, but eventually resumed with a slightly smaller workforce. However, the overall demand for electricity has reduced in almost every country aroudn the world. If the fall in demand continues, or if there is no significant recovery in the demand, a few power plants will be curtailed in every such country. Some nuclear reactors may also be required to temporarily shut down. Reactors that are currently under construction and scheduled to be commissioned in later part of 2020 or in early 2021 may also be affected by the lack of electricty demand. This could lead to delays in commissioning.