Nuclear Is Green (as in the Environment, not as in Money)

Like most energy issues, nuclear power is complicated. Its pluses include providing continuous baseload power, having high capacity, and being carbon free. The negatives are expensive to build, higher production cost than alternatives, dealing with the waste, and worrying about U.S. airstrikes if it thinks you are producing nuclear weapons. Well, maybe that last one only applies to Iran. Should non-OECD countries pursue nuclear energy? Yes. Will they? Each country must decide if it is right for them, but I don’t expect many will.

These three charts from the IAEA show the current state of nuclear power:

operational reactors.png

Number of operational nuclear reactors

nuclear share of energy generation.png

Nuclear share of energy generation

nuclear power capacity trend.png

Global nuclear power capacity has remained flat for the past 19 years

As these charts show, nuclear power is not very common outside the OECD, Former Soviet Union, China, and India. The latter two countries see nuclear as part of an energy portfolio to enable their growing economies. China is the fastest growing nuclear energy market in the world, while India could become the third largest nuclear energy producing country by 2040 (IEA and NEA, 2015). India also wants to be a nuclear country to counter Pakistan. Other non-OECD countries are not nearly as aggressive in pursuing nuclear power.

That makes sense when one looks at the economics of nuclear power. A nuclear plant costs 1,600-5,900 USD/kWe to build, compared to 900-2,800 for coal, 520-1,800 for natural gas, and 1,900 to 3,700 for wind and those others can be built in less time (IEA and NEA, 2010). Even after construction, the economics don’t work:

2017 cost of energy production

There are technological developments, such as molten salt and small modular reactors, that could make nuclear power more attractive to other non-OECD countries. Adopting any nuclear technology requires the combined efforts of governments, financial sector, and industry (IEA and NEA, 2015). Governments must provide a manageable regulatory framework, streamlined permitting process, and research and development funding. The financial sector, in combination with governments, needs to provide consistent and reliable credit for projects. Industry must deliver projects on time and within budget and assuage public concerns by proving it is safe, especially after the Fukushima accident. I expect non-OECD countries will wait until OECD countries overcome those barriers before they make the investment themselves.

I’ll finish with this IAEA chart:

under construction reactors.png

Reactors under construction

These 69 reactors will provide 66 GW of capacity, with over 35% of that in China alone. India, the UAE, Belarus, Pakistan, Ukraine, Argentina, and Brazil are the only other non-OECD countries currently constructing reactors, which total 14 GW. Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia are the only countries close to joining this group (IEA and NEA, 2015). The new construction will get the world only halfway to the IEA’s goal of 930 GW of nuclear energy by 2050, and that doesn’t account for expected closures.

A technological revolution, change in economics, and shift in public perception must occur before we can expect non-OECD countries to pursue nuclear power over coal or natural gas. Until then, non-OECD countries should focus their energy development on natural gas, wind, and solar.

International Energy Agency and Nuclear Energy Agency (2010). Projected costs of generating electricity (2010 ed.). Paris, France.

International Energy Agency and Nuclear Energy Agency (2015). Technology roadmap: Nuclear energy (2015 ed.). Paris, France.


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