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IEA Report: Future Of Nuclear Energy Industry “Uncertain”

Exelon nuclear power plant by iluvcocacola (some rights reserved)The global nuclear energy industry is facing an increasingly uncertain future according to the International Energy Agency’s recent World Energy Outlook 2014 — owing to a number of different coalescing factors.

These factors — economic uncompetitiveness, lack of public confidence, massive subsidy reliance, changing government policy, “financing in liberalized markets,” and the approaching closure of old facilities — have resulted in the current flagging state of the industry in Europe and the US, and the aggressive exportation of the industry to India, China, and the Middle East.

The majority of nuclear projects currently under development are in India, Russia, China, and South Korea. While the “poster child” — more or less — of the industry, France, is actually now looking to cut its home nuclear capacity by one-third by 2025. And, of course, Germany is quickly pulling out of nuclear completely. This shift is partly a result of the high (and rising) costs of the technology, and partly environmental concerns/public opinion.

While proponents of nuclear like to argue that it’s the only non-fossil-fuel-reliant generation technology that could possibly provide enough power to keep the globalized world going, they almost invariably leave out the facts that the technology is incredibly capital-intensive, reliant on government subsidy (the private market will not finance or insure it), takes long to develop, is water-intensive, and is of course susceptible to catastrophic failure. These issues are largely not shared by nuclear’s competitor technologies — solar, wind, geothermal, etc.

What then is the upside to nuclear? If you were an investor choosing between investing in a large solar project that could be built and online within just a few years (or less), that didn’t involve the use of materials that constitute a public health danger, that didn’t require close access to a major waterway; or a renewable energy project that was none of these things, why would you choose the nuclear option?

Taking these questions into account, it isn’t hard to see why the technology is facing an increasingly “uncertain” future — as the IEA put it.


The Hindu provides some interesting comments on that note:

The key fact about nuclear power is that it is the world’s most subsidy-fattened energy industry, even as it generates the most dangerous wastes whose safe disposal saddles future generations. Commercial reactors have been in operation for more than half-a-century, yet the industry still cannot stand on its own feet without major state support. Instead of the cost of nuclear power declining with the technology’s maturation — as is the case with other sources of energy — the costs have escalated multiple times.

In this light, nuclear power has inexorably been on a downward trajectory. The nuclear share of the world’s total electricity production reached its peak of 17% in the late 1980s. Since then, it has been falling, and is currently estimated at about 13%, even as new uranium discoveries have swelled global reserves. With proven reserves having grown by 12.5% since just 2008, there is enough uranium to meet current demand for more than 100 years.

Yet, the worldwide aggregate installed capacity of just three renewables — wind power, solar power and biomass — has surpassed installed nuclear-generating capacity. In India and China, wind power output alone exceeds nuclear-generated electricity.

Boom. While these realities seem as though they would satisfy the minds of most, I’m expecting that there will no doubt be some who read this article and can’t stop themselves from spouting out the usual pro-nuclear talking points. But alas, I suppose that’s the fate of any public debate — the more clear the realities become, the more that people entrench themselves in their various ideologies. Ideologies aside, though, it seems very unlikely that nuclear technology as it stands will make any economic sense in the future — so, for reasons mostly unrelated to what anyone may wish, think, or desire, the technology seems to be on its way out.

On that note, the French nuclear energy giant Areva recently saw its stock price drop considerably after the announcement that it was “suspending” its financial outlook for 2015 and 2016 — owing to cashflow problems to do with its long-delayed project in Finland and its failure to convince Japan to restart most reactors after the Fukushima disaster.

Image Credit: Exelon nuclear power plant by iluvcocacola (some rights reserved)

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Written By

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.


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