Due to increasing costs of production, a slowed demand for electricity, and fresh memories of disaster in Japan, production of nuclear power fell in 2011, according to the latest Vital Signs Online (VSO) report from the Worldwatch Institute. Despite reaching record levels the previous year, global installed nuclear capacity – the potential power generation from all existing plants – declined to 366.5 gigawatts (GW) in 2011, from 375.5 GW at the end of 2010.
Not surprisingly, this drop in installed capacity corresponds with a decline in global consumption of nuclear energy. Nuclear’s share of world commercial primary energy usage fell to around 5 percent in 2010, having peaked at about 6 percent in 2001 and 2002. Only four countries – the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom – increased their share of nuclear power by over 1 percentage point between 2009 and 2010.
Much of the decline in installed capacity is the result of halted reactor construction around the world. Although construction on 16 new reactors began in 2010 – the highest number in over two decades – that number fell to just two in 2011, with India and Pakistan each starting construction on a plant. In addition to this dramatically slowed rate of construction, the first 10 months of 2011 saw the closing of 13 nuclear reactors, reducing the total number of reactors in operation around the world from 441 at the beginning of the year to 433.
“It’s too early to conclude that nuclear energy is beginning a long-term decline, but these numbers can hardly encourage the industry,” says Worldwatch president Robert Engelman. “The high cost of nuclear electricity generation and the widespread public perceptions that it poses unacceptable safety risks make it unlikely this form of power will help slow human-caused climate change or offer an attractive alternative to rising fossil-fuel prices any time soon.”
China is an exception to the global slump in nuclear electricity generation, in terms of both the number of plants being built and installment capacity levels. The country accounted for 10 of the 16 reactor construction starts in 2010, and that year it initiated the installment of nearly 10 GW of capacity, representing 62 percent of capacity construction worldwide. China currently is home to 27 reactors and has some 27 GW of capacity under construction. “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,” says Worldwatch MAP Fellow Matt Lucky, the author of the VSO report.
The United States, too, does not appear to be abandoning nuclear power just yet. In 2010, the Obama administration approved $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for construction of nuclear reactors; in February of 2011, the administration’s budget proposal upped that amount by an additional $36 billion.
The current global decline in installed nuclear power capacity stands in stark contrast to nuclear’s surge in popularity throughout the 2000s. Although many factors are behind the decline, it is largely the result of high costs, slowed electricity demand, and lower natural gas prices in recent months. The reactor meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima plant seven months ago also likely added to the severity of the decline. Only 10 of Japan’s 54 reactors are currently connected to the grid, China froze construction on 25 reactors immediately after the Fukushima explosions, and both Germany and Switzerland announced plans to phase out nuclear power following the disaster.