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Promises and Pitfalls: The Future of Nuclear Energy

The global nuclear energy debate has now reached important key inflection points that could determine its future in the world’s energy mix. In the run up to last November’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, the International Energy Agency (IEA) called for the nuclear industry to nearly double in size over the next two decades to meet global net-zero emissions targets.

Tihange Nuclear Power Station in Huy, Belgium.   ©jotily/iStock
Tihange Nuclear Power Station in Huy, Belgium. ©jotily/iStock

This February, Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine appeared to all but guarantee the future of nuclear power as a clean source of energy. The ongoing conflict has placed a giant question mark against a return to Europe’s decades long dependence on Russian oil and gas in the foreseeable future.

Nuclear power plants' most obvious advantage is their low carbon footprint. They are also cheaper to run than their coal or gas rivals. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) estimates that the cost of a nuclear plant can be between 33% to 50% of the cost of a coal plant and 20% to 25% of that of a gas combined-cycle plant. Another clear advantage is nuclear power’s higher reliability over renewables like solar and wind.

Set against the pros is the potential for accidents and the possibility of sabotage or nuclear terrorism. There’s also the vexed question of how to dispose of nuclear waste, estimated by the WNA at 34,000 cubic meters globally.

However, with climate change concerns—now joined by severe restrictions on Russian gas and oil—topping the energy policy agenda, the global argument seems to move in favor of nuclear power.

The question of how to dispose of nuclear waste is a major concern.   ©Grasetto/iStock
The question of how to dispose of nuclear waste is a major concern. ©Grasetto/iStock

Nuclear Power Future Hangs in the Balance

The WNA estimates that 440 nuclear power reactors provide about 10% of the world's electricity. They are the world's second largest source of low-carbon power. But despite these gains it is by no means certain—judging by its history—that nuclear power will succeed in significantly replacing fossil fuels in the future global energy mix.

Ever since the first nuclear power generating stations were commissioned in the 1950s to great fanfare, progress has been mixed.

Since the first nuclear power plants began operating in the 1950s, progress has been mixed. By the 1970s and 1980s, it had reached its nadir following accidents at Three Mile Island in the US and Chernobyl in the Ukraine. Then in 2011, the Fukushima incident in Japan led to the shutdown of the country’s entire fleet of thirty-three nuclear generating plants. The Japanese shutdowns were mirrored in South Korea; and in Europe, in what many observers deemed an inexplicable over-reaction to the events at Fukushima, the German government decided to phase out all nuclear plants by the end of 2022.

Chernobyl’s ruined power plant No. 4 in 2016.   ©Blinoff/iStock
Chernobyl’s ruined power plant No. 4 in 2016. ©Blinoff/iStock

All of this was compounded by the green lobby’s warnings about nuclear waste disposal. Many Europeans remain skeptical about deep geological disposal, and the European Commission is also not sold on the idea.

Reviving Coal Instead of Nuclear Plants

Meanwhile, a new study from Rystad Energy shows that nuclear power in Europe is underperforming.

Although most EU nations are pro-nuclear, a group of five—Austria, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, and Portugal—banded together at COP26 to urge the European Commission to keep nuclear out of the EU’s green finance taxonomy. Vladimir Petrov, senior power analyst at Rystad Energy said, "European nuclear power stations are not producing at capacity and are expected to average 69% utilization through 2022 unless shutdowns and reductions are reversed. This is below the global average of 76% utilization."

European nuclear power stations are not producing at capacity and are expected to average 69% utilization through 2022—compared to a global average of 76%—unless shutdowns and reductions are reversed.

Faced with dwindling natural gas supplies from Russia, Germany decided to restart its old coal plants. The country has the largest coal power generation fleet in Europe, "a total of 46.7 gigawatts (GW) of installed coal power generation capacity in 2020, all of which was planned to be gradually decommissioned by 2038. … These plans have now been reversed, and the government is trying to extend the life of 10 GW of mothballed coal capacity until March 2024," Petrov continued.

The debate about extending the life of its three remaining nuclear power facilities has split the German government coalition. The German Social Democrats (SPD) and German Free Democrats (FDP) want to extend the plants’ operation until at least to the summer of 2023 to avoid energy shortages during the cold German winter. The Green Party (Die Grünen) insists on phasing them out by the end of 2022.

The debate about extending the life of its three remaining nuclear power facilities has split the German government coalition.

France, whose fifty-six nuclear reactors produce over 70% of its electricity, continues its plans to build up to six new next-generation EPRs (European Pressured Reactors II) by 2030. Furthermore, France is expected to study the construction of eight additional EPRs as well as new small modular reactors (SMR) for a total capacity of 25GW by 2050. The UK is also looking to expand its nuclear fleet: an industry consortium led by Rolls-Royce will spend £405m ($494.6 million) to develop a fleet of SMRs over the coming years.

But in the short-term, French nuclear power is facing several woes that are expected to impact the UK this winter. Output from Electricite de France’s (EDF) nuclear reactors is plunging. This has forced EDF to draw in supplies from connected markets such as the UK. Fintan Slye, director of the UK National Grid’s network operator, said that several of the utility’s plants are halted for repairs, and the big questions are whether they will get back to normal operations in time and what will that mean for interconnector flows to France this winter.

Mixed Outlook in Asia

In Asia, China is currently building more new nuclear reactors than any other country. Their plan for as many as 150 by 2030 is estimated to cost around $500 billion. With these reactors in place, the country will overtake the US as the operator of the world’s largest nuclear-energy system. It is also experimenting with SMRs.

Japan is still reeling from the effects of the Fukushima incident, and as of March this year had only brought ten reactors back online out of a fleet of thirty-three. A further fifteen reactors are in the process of restart approval.

In the past, 30% of Japan’s electricity came from nuclear. In 2020, the figure was down to just 5.1%.

Meanwhile, South Korea, which has twenty-five operable nuclear reactors, with a combined net capacity of 24.4 GWe, has decided to re-embrace nuclear energy. The nation had taken a hiatus in 2017, when then-President Moon Jae-in decided to phase out nuclear energy.

In July 2022, South Korea’s new government, under President Yoon Suk Yeol, announced that construction of two new reactors at the Hanul Nuclear Power Plant on the country's east coast would be restarted. South Korea is also exporting nuclear power technology, including constructing a four-unit plant in the United Arab Emirates. By 2030, South Korea’s Energy Ministry wants nuclear to make up at least 30% of the country's power generation. This is a step up from its previous goal of 27%.

Nuclear Power Depends on Political Will

The future of nuclear power depends now on the sufficient political will to increase the amount of nuclear power generating facilities. The WNA’s “Harmony” program proposes the addition of 1,000 GWe of new nuclear capacity by 2050 (current capacity of 1,250 GWe), to provide 25% of global electricity use (about 10,000 TWh). However, as seen in Europe, nuclear power still has a way to go to before legislators recognize its “green” credentials.


*Nnamdi Anyadike is an industry journalist specializing in metals, oil, gas, and renewable energy for over thirty-five years.


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