The world is on track to lose a quarter of existing nuclear capacity by 2025, leaving clean energy and climate goals in jeopardy, according to a report released today.
The Paris-based International Energy Agency argues that the 25% of existing nuclear power capacity will be lost in six years and up to two-thirds by 2040.
The report marks IEA’s first public assessment of the state of the nuclear power industry in about two decades.
Renewable energy builds are unlikely to fill the gap, the agency predicts, meaning nations will probably replace lost nuclear generation with natural gas or coal, thus potentially increasing carbon dioxide emissions by up to 4 billion metric tons per year.
The share of nuclear energy in the United States’ electricity fleet could fall from around 20% of power generation today to just 8% by 2040 given current trends, IEA analysts conclude.
"We expect a steep decline of the existing nuclear fleet," IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said during a call with reporters.
In language that echoes past arguments made by the Trump administration, IEA is recommending designing electricity markets in ways that reward reliable baseload sources of power as opposed to variable renewables. The report calls to "design the electricity market in a way that properly values the system services needed to maintain electricity security, including capacity availability and frequency control services."
Energy Secretary Rick Perry has in the past suggested favorable market treatment for baseload electricity sources that meet the Trump administration’s definition of energy security, but Perry’s aim was to bolster coal-fired power generation as it loses market share. IEA, on the other hand, would only apply this standard to emissions-free power sources such as nuclear.
Otherwise, to meet the gap created by lost nuclear generation without fossil fuels, the world would have to install new wind and solar photovoltaic generating systems at rates five times faster than what has been achieved over the past 20 years, according to the IEA study. That would spike electricity bills, the agency argues, because massive new transmission infrastructure would be needed to connect it all, even if it could be built.
Simply extending the lifetimes of existing nuclear reactors would be far cheaper, IEA says.
However, "there are major challenges in building new power plants, on top of that getting lifetime extensions of existing plants," Birol said. "We think this situation may well have serious implications for our fight against climate change and at the same time electricity security for the countries around the world."
Birol noted that the global share of low-carbon sources of electricity — wind, solar, nuclear and hydropower — has been stuck at 36% for several years despite the rapid buildup of wind and solar energy. The lack of progress is due to faltering nuclear energy, he said.
To further clean the world’s grid, IEA proposes introducing new market incentives and explicit government support for carbon-free baseload sources of power such as nuclear energy.
Climate goals in the crosshairs
IEA warns that abandoning nuclear, one of the main sources of emissions-free energy, will make it that much harder for the world to decarbonize the power sector.
That includes efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, IEA says, where climate change activists stress solar and wind energy and remain hostile to nuclear power. Reactors currently generate more emissions-free electricity in the United States than solar and wind energy generation combined.
"We also need to see other low-carbon technologies to make the contribution," Birol said.
The new IEA report calls out the overemphasis on the two popular sources of renewable energy, with analysts there expressing concerns over the consequences of activists and governments promoting emissions reduction strategies based solely on wind and solar, as both those sources are variable and inconsistent.
Peak solar and wind generating periods don’t correspond with peak demand for electricity.
Solar photovoltaic generation works only in daylight and best at high noon on sunny days, but grid operators say demand peaks later in the afternoon toward the evening hours, as people return from work and turn on their lights, appliances and air conditioners. Land-based wind power systems often see their strongest generation occur overnight, when people are asleep and grid demand is lowest.
IEA says nuclear can and should be relied on to make up for this variability and to stabilize power supplies.
"Nuclear plants help to keep power grids stable," the authors say in the executive summary. "To a certain extent, they can adjust their operations to follow demand and supply shifts. As the share of variable renewables like wind and solar photovoltaics rises, the need for such services will increase."
But the fate of nuclear in the United States and elsewhere is entirely dependent on government policy, IEA’s analysts conclude.
The agency estimates that the average U.S. nuclear reactor is now at least 39 years old, hitting up against the typical 40-year "original design lifetime for operations."
And even where plants are designed to operate longer, unfavorable economics and politics are seeing early retirements of reactors. Some 90 nuclear reactors in the United States have planned life spans of 60 years, but early retirements of these units are mounting, according to the report.
It’s much the same story in Europe and Japan.
For instance, most independent analysts think the Japanese government will only succeed in getting a relative handful of shuttered nuclear reactors back online because of public opposition, delays and a refusal by regulators to offer lifetime extensions for aging reactors.
The European Union is at risk of losing over 100 gigawatts of nuclear power capacity, the largest total potential decline of any jurisdiction, according to IEA. Nuclear power’s share of the European Union’s grid could slide from some 25% today to just 4% by 2040.
The agency acknowledges that economics have had a major role in nuclear’s bleak outlook.
"Low wholesale electricity and carbon prices, together with new regulations on the use of water for cooling reactors, are making some plants in the United States financially unviable," IEA says, while lamenting that nuclear power isn’t afforded government incentives like feed-in tariffs or loan guarantees extended to other zero-emissions generation.
Reversing the economic misfortunes of nuclear power stations would mean "more intrusive policy intervention given the very high costs of projects and unfavorable recent experiences in some countries," the authors said.
IEA makes several new policy recommendations to save nuclear power.
The agency calls on governments to consider halting early retirements of units and recommends instead authorizing lifetime extensions for reactors, keeping them running "for as long as safely possible." The report also suggests that governments extend financial incentives to nuclear as they do to wind and solar projects, given that both are emissions-free energy sources.
Governments, IEA says, should clear the red tape necessary to get a new nuclear power plant built or to get the lifetimes of existing reactors extended, as well as provide government-supported project financing mechanisms.
Analysts there say they would also like to see faster deployment of proposed small modular reactor technologies.
But Birol was careful to note that IEA is not recommending nuclear energy for countries that simply don’t want it or cannot afford to build it.
"Our main audience for this report is the countries who want to keep" existing nuclear energy generating capacity "but have serious market and economic challenges," he said. "I hope our report will help them to make better policies."