Nuclear Power Crawling Forward

Product Number: 
VST112

In 2007, global installed capacity of nuclear power grew by less than 2,000 megawatts to 372,000 megawatts.1 (See Figure 1.) The slight growth in nuclear power is attributable to the addition of three new reactors in India, China, and Romania.2 The new nuclear capacity is equi­valent to just one tenth of the new wind power installed globally in 2007.3

Rising gas prices and concern about the carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants have fueled growing interest in nuclear power in many nations.4 But only four countries began building new nuclear reactors in 2007: China, France, Russia, and South Korea.5 The seven new reactors being built in those countries will account for 5,190 megawatts of new nuclear capacity-about 100 megawatts less than was added in 2006.6 (See Figure 2.)

No nuclear reactors were permanently shut down in 2007.7 Since 1964, however, the commercial nuclear industry has retired 124 reactors, amounting to a total of 36,800 mega­watts of generating capacity.8 (See Figure 3.)

By the end of 2007, some 34 reactors were under construction worldwide, but 12 of these units have been under construction for 20 years or more.9 In the Americas, only two reactors are being built, in the United States and Argen­tina; both began construction in the 1980s.10 In Western Europe two reactors are being built, in Finland and France.11 In Eastern Europe, reactors are under construction in Bulgaria and Ukraine (two each), Slovakia (two), and Romania (one).12

In Russia, seven reactors-totaling 4,585 megawatts of electric capacity-are being built; four of these have been in construction for two decades.13 Russia is completing a fast-breeder reactor, which produces more nuclear fuel that it consumes and which uses plutonium, highly enriched uranium, or even mixed oxide fuel rather than the conventional fuel, uranium.14 In addition, construction has begun on two 30-megawatt reactors that will be placed on barges to provide power to remote regions.15

The U.K. government has indicated interest in resuming its long-dormant nuclear construction pro­grams, but it will have to navigate long, uncertain regulatory processes before any new plants can be started.16

Asia accounts for the most nuclear power plant construction, with 20 new reactors cur­rently under way.17 India and China each have six reactors under construction.18 These 12 plants account for 8,130 megawatts-or more than a quarter of the nuclear capacity currently being built worldwide.19 South Korea is building three units, while Japan, Iran, and Pakistan are each building a single nuclear plant.20

Some nuclear projects are being delayed by construction problems. The expected delivery date of the Olkiluoto Finnish plant has been pushed back by at least two years because of concerns about concrete in the foundation and flawed welds for the reactor's steel liner, among other problems.21 Analysts estimate the prob­lems at this reactor could add another 1.5 bil­lion euros to the final price tag, increasing by 50 percent the initial projected cost of 3 billion euros.22

Engineering challenges are also slowing the Chinese and Taiwanese nuclear programs. China's newest reactor was two years behind schedule when it went into commercial operation in 2007. Construction was delayed for almost a year as Chinese regulators examined the welds of the steel liner of the reactor core.23 Despite these setbacks, the government continues to forge ahead with nuclear power. French nuclear giant Areva and the Chinese govern­ment will cooperate on future nuclear reactors as well as the reprocessing of nuclear waste.24

In Taiwan, the Lungman reactors have fallen five years behind schedule, due in part to welds that failed inspection in 2002 and had to be redone.25 In addition, the Taiwan Power Company acknowledged that "the rising cost of steel, concrete and other commodities has gutted subcontractor profits, causing them to stop work to renegotiate fixed price contracts."26

In Japan, nuclear power suffered a setback in July 2007 when a major earthquake struck the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant on the northwest coast, the largest nuclear complex in the world.27 The earthquake, measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale, required operators to shut down the plant's seven nuclear reactors, which account for 8,000 megawatts of Japan's nuclear capac­ity.28 Officially, the complex is slated to remain inactive for at least one year. However, because the quake caused ground motion two and a half times more powerful than the reactors were designed to withstand, questions have been raised about whether they should ever be returned to service.29

In the Middle East and Africa, there is only one nuclear reactor currently under construction: a Russian-designed 1,000-megawatt reactor in Iran.30 But the Iranian nuclear program has spurred interest in the region. In the past year, more than a dozen Middle Eastern countries have announced they intend to pursue the development of nuclear power.31 The interest expressed by majority Sunni Muslim states is viewed by U.S. officials as a direct response to the nuclear ambitions of Shiite Iran.32

In the United States, no new nuclear construction was initiated in 2007, though one reactor was restarted after a 22-year shutdown, and construction resumed on a reactor that had been stalled since 1988.33 Nuclear corporations submitted applications for seven new reactors in 2007, the first ones proposed in at least 30 years, and government regulators expect applications for another 22 reactors in 2008.34 Yet even nuclear industry officials have questioned whether new reactors are economically viable without government subsidies. The president of Constellation Generation Group, an energy company that is planning to build a reactor in the state of Maryland, has stated that it will not build nuclear plants without loan guarantees.35

Wall Street has yet to be sold on new nuclear investments in the United States. Moody's, a credit rating agency, has stated that it "believes that many of the current expectations regarding new nuclear generation are overly ambitious," raising questions about the industry's cost estimates and its schedule for bringing the next U.S. nuclear reactor online.36 Moody's noted that the costs associated with next-generation nuclear plants could be significantly higher than the estimates of approximately $3,500 per kilowatt cited by the industry.37 Moody's noted that its estimates were $6,000 per kilowatt, and it cautioned that nuclear investment could affect corporations' credit ratings.38

Moody's concerns seem well placed. By the end of 2007, new nuclear plant cost estimates for identical Westinghouse-designed nuclear plants had soared, more than doubling to $12-18 billion.39 MidAmerican Energy Holdings, a sub­sid­iary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., became the first U.S. company to postpone plans for a new reactor when it withdrew its letter of intent to government regulators in late 2007.40 MidAmerican's spokesperson stated that it does not currently make economic sense to pursue this project.41

Jim Riccio is a Nuclear Policy Analyst at Green­peace in Washington, DC.

Notes: 
  1. Installed nuclear capacity is defined as reactors connected to the grid as of 31 December 2007 and is based on the Worldwatch Institute database compiled from statistics from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Power Reactor Information System, at www.iaea.org/programmes/a2.
  2. IAEA, op. cit. note 1.
  3. U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, "Global Wind Energy Capacity Increases 27% in 2007," EERE NEWS, 6 February 2008.
  4. Peter Kaplan, "Report Says Developing Countries Eye Nuclear Power," Reuters, 12 May 2008; James Kanter, "International Agency Urges the Start of an Energy Revolution," New York Times, 8 June 2008.
  5. IAEA, op. cit. note 1.
  6. Based on Worldwatch Institute database compiled from statistics from IAEA, op. cit. note 1.
  7. IAEA, op. cit. note 1.
  8. Based on Worldwatch Institute data base compiled from statistics from IAEA, op. cit. note 1.
  9. Mycle Schneider with Antony Froggat, The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2007 (Brussels: The Greens-European Free Alliance in the European Parliament, January 2008), pp. 7-8.
  10. IAEA, op. cit. note 1.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.; Schneider with Froggat, op. cit. note 9, p. 37; World Nuclear Association, "Information Paper: Plans for New Nuclear Reactors Worldwide," March 2008, at www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf17.html.
  13. Schneider with Froggat, op. cit. note 9, p. 34.
  14. World Nuclear Association, "Information Paper: Fast Neutron Reactors," February 2008, at www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf98.html.
  15. Bjorn Carey, "A Floating Chernobyl?" Popular Science, 10 October 2006, at www.popsci.com.
  16. Schneider with Froggat, op. cit. note 9, pp. 29-31.
  17. IAEA, op. cit. note 1.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.; Schneider with Froggat, op. cit. note 9, pp. 7-8.
  21. Alan Katz, "Nuclear Bid to Rival Coal Chilled by Flaws, Delay in Finland," Bloomberg News, 4 September 2007.
  22. James Etheridge, "TVO Says Won't Share Nuclear Reactor Cost Overruns with Areva," Thomson Financial News, 28 September 2007.
  23. Katz, op. cit. note 21.
  24. John Tagliabue, "China Deal Gives Lift to Revival of Fission," New York Times, 26 November 2007.
  25. Katz, op. cit. note 21.
  26. Ibid.
  27. "Japan Nuke Plant Leak Bigger than Thought," Associated Press, 18 July 2007; Schneider with Froggat, op. cit. note 9, p. 23.
  28. "Nuclear Generation Drops 1.9% in 2007," World Nuclear News, 9 June 2008, at www.world-nuclear-news.org.
  29. Schneider with Froggat, op. cit. note 9, p. 23.
  30. IAEA, op. cit. note 1.
  31. Dan Murphy, "Middle East Racing to Nuclear Power," Christian Science Monitor, 1 November 2007.
  32. William Broad and David E. Sanger, "With Eye on Iran, Rivals Also Want Nuclear Power," New York Times, 15 April 2007.
  33. Duncan Mansfield, "US Nuclear Revival Begins with Restart of TVA's Oldest Reactor," Associated Press, 6 May 2007; "Watts Bar Nuclear Plant," Tennessee Valley Authority, at www.tva.gov/sites/wattsbarnuc.htm.
  34. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "Expected New Nuclear Power Plant Applications," updated 4 June 2008, at www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-licensing/new-licensing-files/expected-new-rx-applications.pdf.
  35. Edmund L. Andrews and Matthew Wald, "Energy Bill Aids Expansion of Atomic Power," New York Times, 31 July 2007.
  36. Moody's Global Credit Research, "New Nuclear Generation in the United States: Keeping Options Open vs. Addressing an Inevitable Necessity," October 2007.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Asjylyn Loder, "Nuclear Power Costs Surge in Rush to Build: Customers May Help Shoulder the Increase," St. Petersburg Times, 12 December 2007.
  40. William J. Fehrman, President and Chief Nuclear Officer, MidAmerican Nuclear Energy Company, "RE: Withdrawal from Consideration and Return of Letter of Intent Submitted to NRC August 28, 2007," to David B. Matthews, Director, Division of New Reactor Licensing, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 5 December 2007.
  41. Scott DiSavino, "MidAmerican Drops Idaho Nuclear Project Due to Cost," Reuters, 29 January 2008.