Status of nuclear power as world switches to renewables

October 4th, 2019, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: Energize

The energy sector is the largest cause of global greenhouse gas emissions. The pertinence of mitigation strategy options needs to be judged, among others, according to three key criteria: feasibility, cost and speed.

The latest World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2019 (WNISR2019) provides a comprehensive overview of nuclear power plant data, including information on age, operation, production and construction.

This is the executive summary of the report

Click here to read the full report

Over the past year, more than 900 local governments in 18 countries representing over 200-million people have “declared a climate emergency and committed to action to drive down emissions at emergency speed”, a movement spreading rapidly.

As the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the construction and operation of nuclear power systems are relatively low — depending on the systems providing the energy necessary to provide mining and milling services, construction materials, transport, waste processing and storage, and, especially, uranium enrichment — some voices have been increasingly audible pushing for lifetime extensions of existing nuclear power plants or the construction of new ones “to address climate change”.

Reactor startups and closures


At the beginning of 2018, 15 reactors were scheduled for start-up during the year; seven of these made it, plus two that were expected in 2019; of these nine startups, seven were in China and two in Russia.

In mid-2018, 13 reactors were scheduled for start-up in 2019, of which five had been connected to the grid as of mid-2019 (including the two started up in 2018)—and four have already been officially delayed until at least 2020. One reactor that was connected to the grid in June 2019, was listed in WNISR2018 as expected to only start in 2020. The startups in China over the 18 months to July 2019 include the long-awaited grid connections for two Framatome-Siemens designed European Pressurised Water Reactors (EPR) and four Westinghouse AP-1000s.


Three reactors were closed in 2018, two in Russia and one in the US, and a further reactor was closed in the US in May 2019. The Wolsong-1 reactor in South Korea also ceased operation in June 2018, which was only officially confirmed later. In July 2019, Japanese utility Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced the closure of the four Fukushima Daini reactors, situated 15 km from the site of Fukushima Daichi subject to disastrous accidents in 2011. WNISR had already registered all four units as closed. TEPCO announced in August 2019 that it will also decommission five of its seven units at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, leaving the company with only two of its original fleet of 17 reactors.


Fig. 1: National nuclear power programme startup and phase-out.

Operation and construction data

Reactor operation and production

There are 31 countries operating 417 nuclear reactors — excluding long-term outages (LTOs) — an increase of four units compared to mid-2018, but one less than in 1989 and 21 fewer than the 2002 peak of 438. The increase is partially due to the restart of four reactors previously in LTO. The total operating capacity increased over the past year by 3,4% to reach 370 GW, which is a new historic maximum, exceeding the previous peak of 368 GW in 2006. Annual nuclear electricity generation reached 2563 TWh in 2018 — a 2,4% increase over the previous year, mainly due to China — but remained 3,7% below the historic peak in 2006. After three years of decline, the world nuclear power generation outside China grew by 0,7% in 2018 but was still below the level of 2014.

WNISR classifies 28 reactors around the world as being in LTO, all considered operating by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These include 24 reactors in Japan, and one each in Canada, China, South Korea and Taiwan. Four reactors have been restarted from LTO since mid-2018, two in India (Kakrapar-1 and -2) and one each in Argentina (Embalse) and France (Paluel-2). Three reactors, two in Japan (Genkai-2, Onagawa-1) and one in Taiwan (Chinshan-1), moved from LTO to closed.

As in previous years, in 2018, the “big five” nuclear generating countries — by rank, the United States, France, China, Russia and South Korea — generated 70% of all nuclear electricity in the world. As in 2017, two countries, the US and France, accounted for 47,5% of 2018 global nuclear production.

Share in electricity/energy mix

The nuclear share of the world’s gross power generation has continued its slow decline from a historic peak of 17,46% in 1996 to 10,15% in 2018. Nuclear power’s share of global commercial primary energy consumption has remained stable since 2014 at around 4,4%.

Reactor age

In the absence of major new-build programmes apart from China, the unit-weighted average age of the world operating nuclear reactor fleet continues to rise, and by mid-2019 reached 30,1 years, exceeding the figure of 30 years for the first time. A total of 272 reactors, two-thirds of the world fleet, have operated for 31 or more years, including 80 (19%) that have reached 41 years or more.

Lifetime projections

If all currently operating reactors were closed at the end of a 40-year lifetime — with the exception of the 85 that are already operating for more than 40 years — with all units under construction scheduled to have started up, installed nuclear capacity would still decrease by 9,5 GW by 2020. In total, 14 additional reactors (compared to the end-of-2018 status) would have to be started up or restarted prior to the end of 2020 in order to maintain the status quo of operating units. In the following decade to 2030, 188 units (165,5 GW) would have to be replaced — 3,2 times the number of startups achieved over the past decade. In the meantime, construction starts are on a declining trend since 2010.


Sixteen countries are currently building nuclear power plants, one more than in mid-2018, as the United Kingdom officially started building the first unit of Hinkley Point C. As of 1 July 2019, 46 reactors were under construction — four fewer than mid-2018 and 22 fewer than in 2013 — of which ten are in China. Total capacity under construction is 44,6 GW, 3,9 GW less than one year earlier.

The current average time since work started at the 46 units under construction is 6,7 years, on the rise for the past two years from an average of 6,2 years as of mid-2017. Many units are still years away from completion. All reactors under construction in at least half of the 16 countries have experienced delays, mostly several years long. At least 27 (59%) of the building projects are delayed.

Of 27 reactors behind schedule, at least eleven have reported increased delays and three more have documented delays for the first time over the past year since WNISR2018. Two reactors have been listed as “under construction” for more than 34 years, Mochovce-3 and -4 in Slovakia, and their start-up has been further delayed, currently to 2020 or 2021.

Six additional reactors have been listed as “under construction” for a decade or more: the two “swimming reactors” Akademik Lomonosov-1 and -2 in Russia, the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) in India, the Olkiluoto-3 reactor project in Finland, Shimane-3 in Japan and the French Flamanville-3 unit. The Finnish, French and Indian projects have been further delayed over the past year while the Japanese one does not even have a provisional start-up date.

The average construction time of the latest 63 units in nine countries (of which 37 are in China) that started up since 2009 was 9,8 years — the first time in years to slip just below ten years — with a very large range from 4,1 to 43,5 years.

Fig. 2: Reactor startups and closures.

Construction starts and new-build issues

Construction starts

In 2018, construction began on five reactors and in the first half of 2019 on one (in Russia). This compares to 15 construction starts in 2010 and 10 in 2013. There has been no construction start of any commercial reactor in China since December 2016. Analysis shows that construction starts in the world peaked in 1976 at 44.

Construction cancellations

Between 1970 and mid-2019, a total of 94 (12% or one in eight) of all construction projects were abandoned or suspended in 20 countries at various stages of advancement.

Potential newcomer countries: Programme delays and cancellations

Construction ongoing

Four newcomer countries are actually building reactors: Bangladesh, Belarus, Turkey and United Arab Emirates (UAE). The first reactor startup in UAE is at least three years behind schedule. The first unit in Belarus is at least one year delayed. At the Turkish Akkuyu site, cracks were identified in the foundation of the reactor building, leading to replacement work and likely to delays. The project in Bangladesh only started recently and it is therefore difficult to assess potential delays.

Cancellations and delays

New-build plans have been cancelled including in Turkey with the second Japanese shareholder Mitsubishi pulling out of the Sinop project in late 2018. The perennial Polish nuclear projects have been postponed again with first power generation now envisaged by 2033. In Egypt, a site permit was issued, but nuclear electricity is not expected before 2026 or 2027. In Jordan and Indonesia, after the cancellation of large nuclear projects, nuclear proponents are back to the drawing board, with small modular reactors this time.

In Kazakhstan, after years of talks, the deputy energy minister stated that there was no “concrete decision” to build a nuclear plant. Saudi Arabia ploughs ahead with its nuclear plans, however, “at a slower pace than originally expected”, as Reuters put it. Thailand’s largest private power company prefers to invest in a nuclear plant in China rather than at home. Vietnam’s national energy company EVN does not even mention nuclear anymore.

Fig. 3: Nuclear production by country.

Small modular reactors

Following assessments of the development status and prospects of small modular reactors (SMRs) in WNISR2015 and WNISR2017, this year’s update does not reveal great changes.

  • Argentina: The CAREM-25 project under construction since 2014 is at least three years late.
  • Canada: A massive lobbying effort is underway to promote SMRs for remote communities and mining operations. Development is in the design stage.
  • China: A high-temperature reactor under development since the 1970s has been under construction since 2012. It is currently at least three years behind schedule.
  • India: An Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) design has been under development since the 1990s, and its construction start is getting continuously delayed.
  • Russia: Two “floating reactors” have been built. The first one went critical, with construction starting in 2007, it took at least four times as long as planned.
  • South Korea: The System-Integrated Modular Advanced Reactor (SMART) has been under development since 1997. In 2012, the design received approval by the Safety Authority, but nobody wants to build it in the country, because it is not cost-competitive.
  • United Kingdom: Rolls-Royce is the only company interested in participating in the government’s SMR competition but has requested significant subsidies that he government is apparently resisting. The Rolls-Royce design is at a very early stage but, at 450 MW, it is not really small.
  • United States: The Department of Energy (DOE) has generously funded companies promoting SMR development. A single design by NuScale is currently undergoing the design certification process.

Overall, there is no sign of any major breakthroughs for SMRs, either with regard to the technology or with regard to the commercial side.

Focus Countries: Widespread extended outages

The following nine focus countries plus Taiwan, covered in depth in this report, represent one-third of the nuclear countries hosting about two-thirds of the global reactor fleet and six of the world’s ten largest nuclear power producers.

Key facts for year 2018:

  • Belgium: Nuclear provided a third less power than in 2017 and represented only 34% of the country’s electricity, and little more than half of the peak in 1986. Reactors were shut down for repair and upgrading for half of the year on average.
  • China: Nuclear power generation grew by 19% in 2018 and contributed 4,2% of all electricity generated in China, up from 3,9% in 2017.
  • Finland: Nuclear generation was stable compared to previous years. The Olkiluoto-3 EPR project was delayed again, and grid connection might take until April 2020 at least, due to pressuriser vibration problems.
  • France: Nuclear plants generated 3,7% more power than in 2017, representing 71,7% of the country’s electricity, just 0,1 percentage point better than in the previous year, which is the lowest share since 1988. Outages at zero capacity cumulated over 5000 reactor-days or almost three months per reactor on average. The Flamanville-3 EPR project was delayed until at least the end of 2022. The target date to reduce the nuclear share to 50% was pushed back from 2025 to 2035 in the draft energy bill.
  • Germany: Germany’s remaining seven nuclear reactors’ generation remained almost stable (–0,4% ) at 71,9 TWh net in 2018, about half of record year 2001. They provided a stable 11,7% of Germany’s electricity generation, little more than one-third of the historic maximum two decades ago (30,8% in 1997). In the meantime, renewables have generated close to twice as much more power (+113 TWh) than was lost through the fading nuclear production (–64 TWh) since 2010. In 2018, renewables provided 16,7% of final energy in Germany (by comparison, nuclear provided 17,4% of French final energy).
  • Japan: Nuclear plants provided 6,2% of the electricity in Japan in 2018, a significant increase over the 3,6% in 2017 (36% in 1998). As of mid-2019, nine reactors had restarted — no restart since mid-2018 — and 24 remained in LTO (two were moved from LTO to closed).
  • South Korea: Nuclear power output dropped by another 10% leading to a decline of 19% since 2015, and supplied 23,7% of the country’s electricity, significantly less than half of the maximum 30 years ago (53,3% in 1987).
  • United Kingdom: Nuclear generation decreased by a further 7,5% and provided only 17,7% of the power in the country, down from the maximum of 26,9 in 1997. While construction officially started at Hinkley Point C, prospects for other new-build projects have receded with further potential investors pulling out (Japan’s Toshiba, Hitachi, Korea’s KEPCO).
  • United States: Nuclear power plants generated a historic maximum of 808 TWh (+3 TWh), while their share in the electricity mix dropped below 20% (19,3%), 3,2 percentage points below the record level of 22,5% in 1995. State subsidies have been granted to four uneconomic nuclear plants to avoid their “early closure”, four more are likely, and several others are under negotiation. However, many units remain threatened with early closure because they cannot compete in the market.

Fukushima status report

Over eight years have passed since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident (Fukushima accident) began, triggered by the East Japan Great Earthquake on 11 March 2011 (also referred to as 3/11 throughout the report) and subsequent events.

Onsite challenges

Spent fuel removal from the pool of Unit 3 finally started in April 2019. Target dates for the start of the operation for Units 1 and 2 are “around FY 2023”. Debris removal from the pool of Unit 1 was completed in February 2019. For Unit 2 work has not begun, as the spent fuel removal process has been redesigned. A method for fuel debris removal was supposed to be designed by FY 2019. However, as of mid-year, no announcement has been made. Removal from the first unit was supposed to start by 2021, which does not seem credible at this point.

Contaminated water management

Large quantities of water are still continuously being injected to cool the fuel debris of Units 1–3. The highly contaminated water runs out of the cracked containments into the basements where it mixes with water that has penetrated the basements from an underground river. The commissioning of a dedicated bypass system and the pumping of groundwater has reduced the influx of water from around 400 m3/day to about 170 m3/day. An equivalent amount of water is partially decontaminated and stored in 1000 m3 tanks. Thus, a new tank is needed every six days. The storage capacity onsite has been increased to over 1,1-million m3 and will be enlarged to 1,4-million m3 by the end of 2020. The ocean release of the water remains widely contested, especially since it was revealed that a large share of the water does not even meet the safety regulations for release.

Worker health

As of February 2019, there were almost 7300 workers involved in decommissioning work on-site, 87% of whom were subcontractors of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). A health ministry investigation showed that over half of 290 involved companies were in violation of some kind of labour legislation. In 2018, two additional workers’ illnesses were recognised as radiation-induced, bringing to six the number of acknowledged occupational diseases due to work at Fukushima.

Offsite Challenges

Amongst the main offsite issues are the future of tens of thousands of evacuees, the assessment of health consequences of the disaster, the management of decontamination wastes and the costs involved.


As of April 2019, almost 40 000 Fukushima prefecture residents — not including “self-evacuees” — are still officially designated evacuees of whom about 7200 are living in the prefecture. According to the prefecture, the number peaked just under 165 000 in May 2012. The government has continued to lift restriction orders for affected municipalities. However, according to a recent survey by the Reconstruction Agency, only 5% of the people returned to Namie Town, while half of the former residents already decided not to return. Others remain undecided. The treatment of voluntary evacuees is worsening. Fukushima prefecture stopped providing free housing in March 2017 and terminated rent assistance for low-income households in March 2019. Once the free housing offer is terminated, they are no longer considered voluntary evacuees and disappear from the statistics. The Special Rapporteurs from the UN Human Rights Commission repeatedly raised concerns about the Japanese policies concerning evacuees and human rights violations linked to families and workers.

Health issues

Officially, by April 2019, a total of 212 people were diagnosed with a malignant tumour or suspected of having a malignant tumour and 169 people underwent surgery. While the cause-effect relationship between Fukushima-related radiation exposure and illnesses has not been established, questions have been raised about the examination procedure itself and the processing of information.

Food contamination

According to official statistics, among 300 000 samples taken in FY 2018 a total of 313 food items were identified in excess of the legal limits (a significant increase over the 200 items found in FY 2017). As of April 2019, in 23 countries post-3/11 import restrictions remain in place.


Decontamination activities in the special decontamination area ended in March 2018 and generated 16,5-million m3 of contaminated soil. Outside Fukushima prefecture, contaminated soil is stored in more than 28 000 places (333,000 m3). As of April 2019, only about 20% of the soil had been moved to dedicated storage areas.

Decommissioning status report: Soaring costs

As an increasing number of nuclear facilities either reaches the end of their pre-determined operational lifetimes or closes due to deteriorating economic conditions, the challenges of reactor decommissioning are coming to the fore.

As of mid-2019, 162 of the 181 closed reactors in the world (eight more than a year earlier) are awaiting or are in various stages of decommissioning. Only 19 units have been fully decommissioned: 13 in the US, five in Germany, and one in Japan. Of these, only ten have been returned to greenfield sites. No change over the year since WNISR2018.

Case studies

In France, decommissioning of the small 80 MW Brennilis reactor will be further delayed, with the earliest possible completion in 2038. In Germany, Neckarwestheim-1 and Philippsburg-1 were defueled. In Italy, decommissioning cost estimates for the four reactors that used to be operated have almost doubled since 2004 to US$8,1-billion. In Lithuania, decommissioning cost estimates for two Soviet, Chernobyl-type reactors increased by two-thirds in five years to US$3,7-billion. If waste management and disposal was included, costs would increase to US$6,8-billion, leaving an estimated funding gap of US$4,7-billion. In Spain, decommissioning cost estimates for the first 240-MW unit to close in 2006 have doubled since to US$292 million. In the US, sales of closed reactors and transfers of decommissioning funds to private waste management companies is spreading. Of ten units undergoing decommissioning, six were sold to such commercial decommissioning companies. The practice raises obvious liability questions in case the available funds run out.

Nuclear power vs. renewable energy deployment


Levelised Cost of Energy (LCOE) analysis for the US shows that the total costs of renewables are now below of coal and combined cycle gas. Between 2009 and 2018, utility-scale solar costs came down 88% and wind 69%, while new nuclear costs increased by 23%.


In 2018, the reported global investment decisions for the construction of nuclear power totaled around US$33-billion for 6,2 GW, which is less than a quarter of the investment in wind and solar individually, with over US$134-billion investment in wind power and US$139-billion in solar, and this year’s investment was higher than previous years, but skewed by the start of construction of the extremely expensive Hinkley Point C in the UK. China remains the top investor in renewables, spending US$91-billion in 2018; however, this was significantly lower than the record US$146-billion invested in 2017, due to dropping prices and to policy changes over the year.

Installed capacity

In 2018, the 165 GW of renewables added to the world’s power grids, up from 157 GW added the previous year, set a new record. Wind added 49,2 GW and solarPV 96 GW, both slightly below the 2017 levels. These numbers compare to a net 8,8 GW increase for nuclear power.

Electricity generation

Ten of the 31 nuclear countries, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Spain, South Africa and UK, a list which includes three of the world’s four largest economies, generated more electricity in 2018 from non-hydro renewables than from nuclear power. That is one more, South Africa, than in 2017.

In 2018, annual growth for global electricity generation from solar was 29%, for wind power about 13%. Both growth rates are down compared to 2017, from 38% and 18% respectively. Nuclear power increased output by 2,4% in 2018, mainly due to China, versus +1% in 2017.

Compared to 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol on climate change was signed, in 2018 an additional 1259 TWh of wind power was produced globally and 584 TWh of solar PV electricity, compared to nuclear’s additional 299 TWh. Over the past decade, non-hydro renewables have added more kilowatt-hours than coal or gas and twice as many as hydropower, while nuclear plants generated less power in 2018 than in 2008.

In China, as in the previous six years, in 2018, electricity production from wind alone (366 TWh) by far exceeded that from nuclear (277 TWh), with solar power catching up quickly (178 TWh).

The same phenomenon is seen in India, where wind power (60 TWh) outpaced nuclear, stagnating at 35 TWh, for the third year in a row. At the same time, solar power soared from 11 TWh in 2016 to 31 TWh in 2018, now hot on nuclear’s tail.

In the US, in 2018, 211 GW of existing coal capacity, or 74% of the national fleet, was at risk from local wind or solar that could provide the same amount of electricity more cheaply. In April 2019, for the first time ever, renewables (hydro, biomass, wind, solar and geothermal) generated more electricity than coal-fired plants across the US. Wind and solar generation topped coal’s output in Texas in the first quarter of 2019, the first time that this has happened on a quarterly basis.

In the European Union virtually all new capacity added in 2018 was renewable (95%, solar and biomass). Wind alone supplied 11,6% of the EU’s total power in 2018, led by Denmark at a remarkable 41%, Portugal and Ireland at 28%, and Germany at 21% with Spain and the UK at 19%  (up from 13,5% in 2017). Compared to 1997, in 2018, EU wind turbines produced an additional 371 TWh and solar 128 TWh, while nuclear power generation declined by 94 TWh.

Climate change and nuclear power

The stakes

To protect the climate, we must abate the most carbon at the least cost—and in the least time—so we must pay attention to carbon, cost, and time, not to carbon alone.

Nuclear power vs. climate protection options

If existing nuclear generation (one-tenth of global commercial electricity) displaced an average mix of fossil-fueled power generation, it would offset the equivalent of 4% of total global CO2 emissions. Expanding nuclear power could displace other generators, fossil-fueled or renewable. Renewables and efficiency can “bolster energy security” at least as well as nuclear power can. The nuclear industry has become one of the most potent obstacles to renewables’ further progress by diverting demand and capital to itself. New operating subsidies for uneconomic reactors in the US or preferential dispatch like the “nuclear-must-run” rule in Japan lead to uncompetitive generation to serve demand for which efficiency and renewables are not allowed to compete.

Non-nuclear options save more carbon per dollar

Nuclear new-build costs have been on the rise for many years. Just in the past five years, US solar and wind prices fell by two-thirds, putting new nuclear power out of the money by about 5 to 10-fold. Nuclear new-build costs many times more per kWh, so it buys many times less climate solution per dollar than major low-carbon competitors — efficiency, wind and solar. Newer technologies do not change this: in the latest nuclear designs, so-called Gen-III+ reactors, about 78 to 87% of total costs is for the non-nuclear part. Thus, if the other 13 to 22%, the “nuclear island”, were free, the rest of the plant would still be grossly uncompetitive with renewables or efficiency. That is, even free steam from any kind of fuel or fission is not good enough, because the rest of the plant costs too much.

The business case for modern renewables is so convincing to investors that the latest official US forecast foresees 45 GW of renewable additions from mid-2019 to mid-2022, vs. net retirements of 7 GW for nuclear and 17 GW for coal.

In many nuclear countries, new renewables can now compete with existing nuclear power plants and their operating, maintenance and fuel costs. While reactor-by-reactor data is not available, published information illustrates that many nuclear plants are not competitive anymore. Their closure will not directly save CO2 emissions but can indirectly save more CO2 than closing a coal-fired plant, if the nuclear plant’s larger saved operating costs are reinvested in efficiency or cheap modern renewables that in turn displace more fossil-fueled generation.

Substitution for closed nuclear plants

Four cases from four different states in the US illustrate that the combination of strong efficiency and renewables policies could not only make up for the loss of nuclear production but allowed for the decrease of coal-based power generation and led to overall CO2 emissions reductions.

Non-nuclear options save more carbon per year

While some nuclear countries had a particularly fast buildup in the 1970s and 1980s (Belgium, France, Sweden, US), many nuclear countries show faster buildup of renewables than in their nuclear programme (China, Germany, Italy, India, Spain, UK, and Scotland individually). A key point is that while current nuclear programmes are particularly slow, current renewables programmes are particularly fast. According to a recent assessment, new nuclear plants take 5 to 17 years longer to build than utility-scale solar or onshore wind power, so existing fossil-fueled plants emit far more CO2 while awaiting substitution by the nuclear option. In 2018, non-hydro renewables outpaced the world’s most aggressive nuclear programme, in China, by a factor of two, in India by a factor of three.

Stabilising the climate is urgent, nuclear power is slow. It meets no technical or operational need that these low-carbon competitors cannot meet better, cheaper, and faster. Even sustaining economically distressed reactors saves less carbon per dollar and per year than reinvesting its avoidable operating cost (let alone its avoidable new subsidies) into cheaper efficiency and renewables.

Click here to read the full report


This executive summary is published here with permission.

Contact Mycle Schneider, World Nuclear Report,


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