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Nuclear phaseout or renaissance?

Gero Rueter
September 6, 2022

With Germany and Belgium delaying their nuclear phaseout due to the war in Ukraine, is atomic energy getting a second life? Countries are still building new reactors, but some struggle to make nuclear pay.

China'a new nuclear power plant Hualong One
China is the world leader in the construction of new nuclear power plants, such as here in Fujian ProvinceImage: Lin Shanchuan/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

The energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine has motivated Germany to extend the life of two nuclear power stations by a few months beyond the scheduled end-of-year phaseout. Meanwhile, Belgium is delaying its 2025 nuclear phaseout by 10 years, and will run one reactor in each of its two plants as backup amid ongoing energy uncertainty. 

This comes as the European Parliament in July sanctioned the listing of nuclear as "green energy."

But as fears also mount about nuclear safety following the shelling of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, Europe's largest, what is state of play on nuclear energy globally?    

There are currently 409 nuclear reactors in operation in 41 countries worldwide. Nuclear power accounted for about 10% of global electricity demand in 2020, down from a high of 17.5% in 1996, according to the 2021 World Nuclear Industry Status Report.   

This nuclear share is now belowrenewable energy generation: While solar and wind power output increased by 21% and 12% respectively in 2020, nuclear generation dropped by 4%.  

Most nuclear reactors were built between 1968 and 1986, mainly in Europe, the United States, the former Soviet Union, and Japan. The global average age of these reactors is 31 years.

Infographic comparing energy costs of different energy sources
Nuclear remains an expensive energy option

US: Future of nuclear power uncertain 

The US currently has 92 nuclear reactors — more than any other country in the world. In 2020, they met almost 20% of the country's electricity demand. The US also has the oldest reactors in the world, with an average age of 41.5 years. 

Most reactors went into operation by 1985, while construction of two new reactors began in 2013.  

The future of nuclear power in the US is uncertain. Although there are concepts for a new generation of smaller, more efficient reactors, the cost of producing nuclear energy is much higher than renewable energy sector — the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of solar globally has declined around 90% in recent years, with nuclear energy rising around 33% at the same time, according to the 2021 World Nuclear Industry Status Report.   

There is no final repository for highly radioactive waste in the US. It is stored on-site at the powerplants.  

France: Nuclear industry with huge losses 

France has relied on nuclear energy like no other country in the world in recent decades. In 2020, nuclear supplied around 67% of electricity demand (down from 71% the previous year). Currently, 56 power plants are still in operation and one is under construction. The power plants have an average age of almost 37 years, and the last reactor went online in 1999. 

The world's largest nuclear energy supplier and state-owned group EDF, which operates the French reactors, is expected to have 60 billion euros ($59,600) in debt by the end of 2022. It will still have to invest an estimated €100 billion by 2030 to keep the old reactors in operation. 

Despite maintenance problems with France's nuclear fleet — including this summer due to high temperatures and drought — President Emmanuel Macron announced in February plans to build six new reactors.   

There is no final repository for highly radioactive waste in France. 

View of the construction site of the nuclear reactor in Flamanville, France
​​​​A new third-generation nuclear reactor in Flamanville, France, is 10 years behind schedule and around five times over-budget Image: Reuters/B. Tessier

Nuclear power too expensive in India

India currently has 19 nuclear reactors that produced a little over 3% of the total national energy in 2020. Three reactors went online over the last 10 years, and six power plants are under construction. The average age of reactors is around 20 years.

However, the expansion of nuclear power in India has been plagued by delays and mounting costs.

In 2012, the Planning Commission of India projected that the total capacity of all reactors would increase from just under 5 gigawatts (GW) to as much as 30 GW by 2027.

Reactors with a capacity of less than 7 GW were connected to the grid in 2020. The reactors under construction have a total capacity of 4 GW. Since the construction time of reactors in India is more than 10 years, a maximum of 11 GW will be on the grid in 2027, almost three times less than originally planned.

India does not have a final storage facility for highly radioactive nuclear waste.

China: More renewables instead of nuclear power

China is the world leader in the construction of new nuclear power plants. In the last 10 years, 37 reactors have come online. According to WNISR, 55 reactors are currently in operation and 22 more reactors are under construction. The share of nuclear power in the country's electricity mix was almost 5% in 2021.

But China also built significantly fewer reactors than originally planned in the country's five-year plan. At the same time, the expansion of renewable energies is eclipsing nuclear.

According to the National Energy Administration, 72 GW of wind power, 48 GW of photovoltaics and 13 GW of hydropower were connected to the grid in 2020. Nuclear power plants contributed only 2 GW of new capacity in the same year.

China does not have a repository for highly radioactive waste, but it is exploring one in the Gobi Desert. Its nuclear waste is currently stored at various reactor sites.

Infografik Energieproduktion China nach Quelle EN

Poland: New plans for nuclear power

Poland has been planning to go nuclear since 1980 and started building two reactors, but stopped construction after the Chernobyl reactor disaster of 1986.

After that, there were repeated and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to restart construction. In 2014, the government adopted a plan to build six new reactors, with the first unit coming online in 2024.

Again in early 2021, the Polish government greenlit plans to construct six reactors in two locations, with the first reactor to begin operation in 2033. 

This article was originally published in German. It was updated on September 6, 2022, to reflect the decision to extend nuclear phaseouts in Germany and Belgium.