More than half of the world's reactors are over 25 years old. The older a reactor is, the more costly maintenance and safety are, which inevitably leads to a loss of productivity.
Only four new reactors were launched in 2018: three in China and one in Pakistan.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), "nuclear energy may be struggling to maintain its current position in the global energy mix" for the next decade. In recent years, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland announced they would gradually phase out of nuclear power. In the United States, construction projects have been temporarily put on hold and a number of plants considered unprofitable are being stopped prematurely.
Why has the global generation of electricity through nuclear energy increased by 1%, despite several countries having decided to remove this source from their energy mix? The answer lies within a small group of countries where nuclear energy remains a stable source of energy, or, in some cases, increases year by year. Today, China has one of the most ambitious markets for nuclear energy.
China, the new land for nuclear energy
Most of China's electricity is produced from fossil fuels, predominantly from coal (73% in 2015). An increasing demand generated a rapid increase of consumption and sparked power shortages. Reliance on fossil fuels led to significant air pollution. According to the World Bank in 2007, the combined health and non-health cost of air and water pollution for China's economy amounted to approximately $US 100 billion a year (i.e. approximately 5.8% of the country's GDP).
Nuclear power plays an important role in the Chinese energy transition, especially in the coastal areas and in areas where the economy is developing rapidly. Nuclear plants can generally be built close to centers of demand. China launched its first nuclear plant in 1994. In 2005, in the eleventh five-year plan, the industry entered a phase of rapid growth. The technology was mainly imported from France, Canada and Russia. There are now 36 reactors in operation, and another 20 under construction. Four have been approved, and many more are currently being designed. By 2030, 9% of Chinese power should be nuclear. This share has already increased from 2% in 2012 to 3.9% today.
As one of 16 key national science & technology projects, nuclear energy policy is monitored at a high level in China. It thus takes advantage of China's economic and diplomatic influence to ensure a sufficient security of supply.
The first two operational reactors were recently put to use: the European Pressurized Water (EPR) reactor at Taishan was connected to the grid on 29 June 2018, and the AP1000 reactor at Sanmen was connected on 30 June 2018. As Xavier Ursat (CEO of French company EDF) tweeted at the opening of the Chinese EPR, "this is great news for the nuclear industry", but also a great economic opportunity.
The timid renaissance of nuclear energy in Japan
After the Fukushima accident in 2011, all power stations were closed. In July 2017, four reactors were reactivated, out of the nine that were reactivated overall since the accident. In 2017, nuclear power production reached 29 TWh, thus contributing 3.6% of the nation’s annual output, which is 10 times less than in 1998. With nine reactors operating in 2018, the nuclear share will reach 6.5%, compared with 29% in 2010.
Many Japanese citizens continue to oppose the use of nuclear energy and the restart of power plants. In a recent polling, 48% of respondents said they were opposed to nuclear restart, while 32% said they supported restart.
Prime Minister Abe’s government stated in 2015 that, by 2030, 20-22% of power generation would come from nuclear, 22-24% would come from renewable energy, and 56% would come from fossil fuels. The Japanese government started working on the revision of its Strategic Energy Plan in 2017, and the latter was approved by Cabinet on July 2018. The government announced that nuclear power would be reestablished, yet without clearly stating what its share within the energy mix would be.
The current government wants reactors to be reactivated as soon as possible. However, the amount of nuclear reactors to be re-launched still depends on several external factors. Among them, economic factors, including a cost-benefit analysis led by utilities on the implications of restart or shutdown, local political and public opposition, and the impact of electricity deregulation and intensified market competition.
The future of nuclear power will then depend on the decisions important producing countries will take, as well as on their ability to renew and export their technology.
Resilience of nuclear energy in Europe
The European Union, through the European Commission, plays a key role in the ecological transition, as it establishes strategies and binding instruments such as the Energy Roadmap 2050. Current goals for 2020 include cutting GHG emissions down by 20%, producing 20% of renewable energy in the EU and improving energy efficiency by 20%.