Nuclear Power Nears Peak

March 5, 1999


As the 20th Anniversary of Three Mile Island Approaches,
the Nuclear Industry Faces Slow Slide to Oblivion

Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen

Two decades after the world's first major nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, the nuclear industry is experiencing a meltdown of historic proportions. After growing more than 700 percent in the 1970s, and 140 percent in the 1980s, nuclear generating capacity has increased less than 5 percent during the 1990s so far. (See Figure 1.) In the last decade, nuclear power has gone from being the world's fastest growing energy source to its slowest, trailing well behind oil and even coal. In 1998, world nuclear generating capacity fell by 175 megawatts.

As the world approaches the 20th anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident on March 28, global nuclear capacity stands at 343,086 megawatts, providing just under 17 percent of the world's electricity. Both of these figures will likely turn out to be close to the all-time historical peak-and less than one-tenth the 4,500,000 megawatts that the International Atomic Energy Agency predicted back in 1974. The Worldwatch Institute projects that global nuclear capacity will begin a sustained decline by 2002 at the latest, and the U.S. Department of Energy projects that it will fall by half in the next two decades.

Nuclear power's biggest problems are economic: it is simply no longer competitive with other, newer forms of power generation. The final 20 U.S. reactors cost $3 to $4 billion to build, or some $3,000 to $4,000 per kilowatt of capacity. By contrast, new gas-fired combined cycle plants using the latest jet engine technology cost $400-$600 per kilowatt, and wind turbines are being installed at less than $1,000 per kilowatt.

Even France, which gets more than three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear power, now has a moratorium on nuclear plant construction, and other European countries are debating how quickly to shut their plants down. The only countries still building nuclear power plants are nations such as China, Japan, and possibly Iran, where the electric power industry is still a government sanctioned monopoly that is protected from competition.

By the end of 1998, 429 nuclear reactors were operating worldwide, one less than five years earlier. Construction is taking place at 33 new reactors. Of these, seven are likely to be completed by the year 2001, while another fourteen may never be completed. Although global capacity is likely to rise for another year or two, it will almost certainly decline precipitously in the following years as the construction pipeline dries up, and the closure of older, uneconomic, or unsafe reactors accelerates.

In the aftermath of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, the U.S. nuclear market was the first to deteriorate. No new nuclear plants have been ordered since then, and nuclear generating capacity is now lower than it was a decade ago. Not only have U.S. power companies stopped building nuclear power plants, they have closed six reactors since 1996 that had become too expensive to operate. Meanwhile, seven of Canada's 21 reactors have been "laid up" due to safety concerns and are unlikely to operate again.

For North American nuclear power, though, the worst may be yet to come. Wall Street analysts and the Washington International Energy Group project that as many as one-third of US and Canadian reactors are vulnerable to shut down in the next five years. The main reason is cost: nuclear energy cannot compete in increasingly competitive power markets.

Western Europe stayed with its nuclear expansion plans longer than the U.S. did, but since the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl sent a cloud of radioactive dust across Europe, the public has turned against nuclear power. Since then, construction has started on only three new reactors. France, long known as the most pro-nuclear country, now has a moratorium on nuclear plant construction, and the Environment Minister, Dominique Voynet, has called for making the ban permanent. A December 1998 poll found that only 7 percent of French citizens thought that nuclear power should be the top energy priority, compared to more than 60 percent who said the priority is renewable energy. The state-owned utility, Electricite de France, which has in the past put virtually all its efforts into nuclear power, has begun to invest in "pint-size" microturbines, and in the development of wind power, both in France and in Morocco.

In Germany, the discussion is not over whether to build more nuclear plants, but on how quickly to shut down the existing reactors. While the previous German government shut down all the nuclear power plants in eastern Germany, the Social Democrat/Green government elected in October 1998 plans to phase out the 19 remaining reactors that produce 30 percent of the country's power. As of February 1999, the Government had agreed that the first reactor will be closed by 2002, though the country's electric utilities are still fighting the plan.

Asia remains the last stronghold for the nuclear power industry, with 88 reactors operating and 26 under construction, though even there, a slowdown is evident. Japan, which obtains 35 percent of its electricity from the atom, only has two reactors under construction, with work starting on one of them in 1998. In fact, the plant at Higashidori in Aomori was the first new one approved in ten years. Citizens groups have nearly stopped construction of new plants, and some communities have passed referenda prohibiting additional units. Although the government plans to add some 20 new reactors by 2010, officials acknowledge privately that the plans are unrealistic. South Korea, meanwhile, has six additional plants still under construction, but there too, the nuclear industry faces growing public opposition.

China has the world's most ambitious nuclear program today, with plans to go from the three reactors it operates now to more than 50 reactors by the year 2020. The country currently has six reactors under construction, with plans to add four more. Whether the Chinese government will achieve these ambitious aims is uncertain, given the high foreign exchange requirements of imported reactors and the lack of a sizable indigenous industry. Moreover, China is likely to face growing pressure to make its power industry more competitive, which would likely complicate nuclear development efforts. Efforts to develop nuclear industries in Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam have all been abandoned in the last few years.

Around the world, it is nuclear power's high cost that has most damaged its market prospects. Most nuclear power plants have been built by monopoly utilities, and the costs were passed through to consumers, regardless of how high they were. But with governments around the world now opening electric power markets to the winds of competition for the first time, nuclear power must stand on its own. This development is the final blow to the nuclear industry. It is only in the few remaining protected power markets-mainly in the Far East-that any additional plants are being ordered.

One indication of nuclear power's economic status is the price it has been commanding on the open market. The Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts was sold for $80 million, though $67 million of that was for fuel. Also last year, CBS decided to sell what was once the world's largest nuclear company, Westinghouse Nuclear. The company sold for just $1.2 billion. By contrast, Exxon is valued at $172 billion, and Microsoft at $278 billion.

Orders for new reactors have largely dried up. (See Figure 2.) The few remaining nuclear companies, including France's Framatome and Germany's Siemens, are surviving on maintenance work, and government-sponsored contracts to refurbish Eastern Europe's decrepit reactors. If new business does not turn up soon, there may be little nuclear construction capacity left. In light of the long lead times in nuclear construction, the decline of nuclear power in the early decades of the new century has become virtually inevitable. The U.S. Department of Energy, successor-agency to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, now projects a sharp decline in nuclear power generation in the next two decades.

Nuclear industry supporters argue that given recently heightened concern about fossil fuel-induced climate change, the timing is tragically ironic. Existing nuclear plants do displace the emission of large quantities of greenhouse gases from coal-fired plants, but few governments are seriously considering nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Instead, they have responded to climate change by investing in new energy technologies such as solar energy and wind power. As a result, renewable energy sources are now expanding rapidly. Last year, while nuclear capacity fell, wind power capacity rose by 2,100 megawatts. These provide tiny amounts of power today, but are already growing at the kind of double-digit rates that nuclear power enjoyed in the 1970s. And the new technologies are not threatened by the kind of physical or economic meltdowns that have done in the nuclear power industry.

World Electrical Generating Capacity of Nuclear Power Plants, 1960-98, with Projections to 2020

graph of world electrical generating capacity of nuclear power


World Nuclear Power Electrical Generating Capacity

World Nuclear Reactor Construction Starts, 1960-98

graph of world nuclear reactor construction starts


World Nuclear Reactor Construction Starts, 1960-98

Year Gigawatts
1960 0.83
1961 0.85
1962 1.8
1963 2.1
1964 0.1
1965 4.8
1966 6.2
1967 8.3
1968 9.2
1969 13
1970 16
1971 24
1972 32
1973 45
1974 61
1975 71
1976 85
1977 99
1978 114
1979 121
1980 135
1981 155
1982 170
1983 189
1984 219
1985 250
1986 276
1987 297
1988 310
1989 320
1990 328
1991 325
1992 327
1993 336
1994 338
1995 340
1996 343
1997 343
1998 343
1999 339
2000 335
2001 331
2002 327
2003 323
2004 319
2005 315
2006 310
2007 306
2008 301
2009 297
2010 292
2011 280
2012 268
2013 256
2014 244
2015 232
2016 220
2017 208
2018 196
2019 184
2020 172
Source: Worldwatch database
Year Gigawatts
1960 0.9
1961 1.4
1962 1.2
1963 1.6
1964 2.7
1965 3.1
1966 7.1
1967 16.7
1968 24.9
1969 11.3
1970 25.6
1971 10.6
1972 20.2
1973 19.4
1974 25.6
1975 31.3
1976 30
1977 15.8
1978 13.9
1979 21.9
1980 18.3
1981 13.3
1982 16.5
1983 3.5
1984 10.5
1985 14.5
1986 3.5
1987 3.9
1988 6.3
1989 5.3
1990 2.3
1991 2.1
1992 4.4
1993 4.4
1994 1.2
1995 0
1996 7.0
1997 3.3
1998 3.9
Source: Worldwatch database