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Nuclear power’s great expectation

In its latest projection study to 2030, the International Atomic Energy Agency has once again increased its projections for global nuclear power capacity, although to maintain its share of total electricity generation, nuclear expansion needs to be more rapid.

In its recently published 2008 report, ‘Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period to 2030’, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has once again revised its projections for global nuclear power capacity upwards.

At the same time, the report found that nuclear power’s share of global electricity generation fell in 2007, to 14 per cent. This compares to the relatively steady share of 16-17 per cent that nuclear power has maintained for almost two decades.

Expectations on the rise

Every year since 1981 the IAEA has published two updated projections for the world’s nuclear power generating capacity à‚— a low projection and a high projection.

The low projection can be described as a down-to-earth, business-as-usual projection and is based on a scenario that only takes into account actual known facts. It assumes that nuclear investment projects currently underway or firmly in the pipeline are implemented; that existing plants are retired as scheduled unless license extensions have been granted or applied for; and that current policies are unchanged, such as the planned German and Belgian phase-outs of nuclear power generation.


Historical growth in global nuclear capacity (blue) plus future growth according to the IAEA’s low & high projections (dark & light green)
Click here to enlarge image

The high projection, on the other hand, takes into account government and corporate announcements about longer term plans for nuclear investments, as well as potential new national policies, e.g. to combat climate change. It is based on input from experts from around the world, who are highly knowledgeable about the nuclear situation in their particular region.

The results for the 2008 projections are shown in Figure 1. In the low projection, the projected nuclear power capacity in 2030 in 473 GW, which is some 27 per cent higher than today’s capacity of 372 GW. While in the high projection, nuclear capacity rises to 748 GW in 2030, which is more than double today’s capacity.

Every year since 2003, the IAEA has revised the high projection upwards. The low projection has also gone up over that period, but less consistently.

The latter has also gone up by a smaller amount than the high projection, which means the gap between the two, or to put it another the way, the uncertainty about nuclear power’s future that is reflected in the two projections has also increased.

Factors behind the rise

These findings beg the question: Why have projections continued to rise over the last five years?

One reason is nuclear power’s current performance record. The world now has accumulated in excess of 13 000 reactor years of experience. Performance has improved greatly since the 1980s, and the safety record of the types of reactors on the market today can honestly be described as excellent.

Another reason is that although nuclear capacity additions since 1986 fell behind the growth of total electricity generation, nuclear power’s market share has held steady because of increases in the average load factor of the global reactor fleet. Nuclear power’s average load factor, which is the number of hours per year that a nuclear power plant provides power to the grid, has grown from 67 per cent in 1990 to more than 80 per cent since early 2000.

The energy demand projections, which are showing persistent long-term growth, also play a part. The world is going to need a lot more energy, so people are now looking at nuclear power as being an important part of the mix. The increase in demand for electricity is being largely driven by fast-growing developing economies, such as China, India, Brazil and Russia – the so-called BRIC countries, with many of those countries announcing major nuclear expansion plans. For example, the Brazilian government has an ambitious plan to add up to 8 GW of new nuclear capacity by 2030, and 60 GW of installed nuclear capacity by 2060.

The picture is less clear for nuclear power in the world’s higher-income countries, which collectively account for 85 per cent of the world’s nuclear-generated electricity. However, there are signs of renewed interest in some parts of the developed world, such as the USA and the UK. Interestingly, earlier this year the UK government published its White Paper on Nuclear Power, paving the way to build up to ten nuclear power plants by 2020. Energy supply security is also back on the agenda of most governments, as they strive to attain a stable energy supply to ensure continued economic growth. A similar situation arose in the 1970s, when concerns about supply security were triggered by oil price shocks. This resulted in many countries, including France, Japan, Sweden and Taiwan to embark on a major nuclear expansion.

Then there is the whole issue of climate change, which now takes centre stage as governments grapple with how best to address this issue. With environmental constraints such as the fast approaching entry-into-force of the Kyoto Protocol and the European carbon trading scheme there is now a financial benefit to avoiding greenhouse gas emissions, which increases the attractiveness of low-carbon electricity generation such as nuclear power.

According to Hans-Holger Rogner, head of the IAEA’s Nuclear Energy Planning and Economic Studies Section, the complete nuclear chain à‚— including uranium mining, reactor construction and waste disposal emits only 3-4 g of carbon dioxide per kWh. This is about the same as wind and hydropower, and significantly less than coal, oil and natural gas.

Finally, nuclear will benefit as the costs of the dominant alternatives, particularly natural gas and coal, continue to rise. Nuclear power generating costs are dominated by its capital and not so much by its fuel cost, providing utilities and operators with an attractive cushion against the volatility of energy and fuel prices.

Nuclear’s Declining Share

Although the IAEA’s projections for nuclear power’s future rose, its share of the world’s electricity generation fell from 15 per cent in 2006 to 14 per cent in 2007.

As mentioned above, for most of the 1990s and early 21st century nuclear’s share remained stable at 16-17 per cent of global supply. However, while total global electricity generation rose by 4.8 per cent from 2007 to 2008, nuclear electricity generation actually dropped.

According to the IAEA, this is due to a number of reasons, not least that nuclear experienced a number of unplanned outages. One of the most significant of those happened at Japan’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power complex, which is the world’s largest rated nuclear power station. Following an earthquake in July last year, all seven of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa’s reactors were shutdown, representing a loss of 8.2 GW in operating capacity, which is almost one-sixth of Japan’s nuclear capacity. To date the nuclear complex remains shutdown.

There were also several other unusual outages and reductions in 2007, including the relicensing and consequent outage of a reactor in South Korea and the coincidence of a number of reactor outage schedules for refueling and maintenance.

There was also reduced generation at some German reactors in order to extend their operating life while meeting the generation limits imposed by the German phase-out programme. If all these separate incidents are taken together, they added up to a slight decline in absolute power generation from nuclear power 2007, compared to 2006.

Finally, it appears that the increases referred to above in the load factor for the current fleet of reactors have plateaued. Although some future increases can be expected as new plants with higher load factors replace old reactors, even these increases will eventually level off since the load factor cannot exceed 100 per cent. Thus the impact of load factor improvements, which allowed past nuclear electricity production to grow at the same pace as total electricity output, has already begun to diminish.

What of the Future?

What is the IAEA’s projection for the nuclear share of electricity generation in the future? In the high projection, growth in nuclear generation matches the 3.2 per cent per year growth in overall generation, and therefore, nuclear power’s share will hold steady at 14 per cent. In its low projection, overall electricity growth is lower and nuclear power’s growth lower still, and by 2030 nuclear power’s share of global electricity is projected to drop to about 12.5 per cent.

Where does the IAEA expect the growth to come from? Most of the recent growth observed has come from the fast growing, populous, developing countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America. In its projections, particularly in the high projection, the IAEA believes that if these economies continue to grow at their current pace this trend will continue. In South Korea, whose policy is to keep nuclear power as a major element of electricity production, construction of the long-awaited 960 MW Shin Kori 2 and 960 MW Shin-Wolsong 1 units commenced last year, while this year the building of Shin-Wolsong 2 commenced in September.

One note of interest is that the IAEA update anticipates seeing a potential rapid expansion of nuclear power in the Middle East in the not too distant future, as the region strives to reduce its dependency on oil.

It is also important not to forget Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation, both of which have an eye on nuclear power, so a potentially rapid expansion may occur in these areas too. For example, Romania’s 655 MW Cernavoda 2 reactor was connected to the grid in August last year, while in September of this year, Russia began construction of its 1085 MW Nonovoronezh 2-1 nuclear power plant.

According to the study, the only region that shows a high degree of uncertainty with regard to future nuclear development is Western Europe. The IAEA found its low and high projections demonstrated the largest difference in this region. These uncertainties include issues such as whether the phase-out programmes in countries such as Germany, for example, will be followed through.

According to Rogner, it is a case of waiting and seeing what European policy will do with regard to nuclear, and this is therefore reflected in the IAEA’s relatively wide spread uncertainty range for Western Europe.

Positive Outlook

The main messages from the IAEA’s 2008 edition of Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period to 2030 is that global electricity use will grow significantly, and that nuclear power will have to expand more rapidly than it has done recently in order to maintain its share, but expectations are that it will meet this challenge.

Commenting on nuclear’s future, Rogner said: “If the economics work out, if nuclear power plants are operated safely and responsibly, and if controversial issues such as long-term nuclear waste disposal are eventually resolved the future is looking bright for nuclear power.”

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