World nuclear capacity
In 2012 the world nuclear capacity was 370 GWe (gigawatt-electric), generating less than 14% of the world electricity and some 1.9% of the total world energy supply [more i05]. At present more nuclear power plants are faciing the end of their operational lifetime and are closed down than new ones come online. Without new nuclear build the current world nuclear fleet, including the plants currently under construction, would be closed down by the year 2050-2060.
The nuclear industry tries to reverse the declining trend and vigorously promotes a nuclear renaissance: a new era of expanding nuclear capacity. In some scenarios of the nuclear industry a world capacity of 1500 GWe (gigawatt electric power) by the year 2050 is cited, four times the current capacity of 370 GWe.
To keep the world capacity at the current level nearly the whole fleet of presently operating nuclear power stations has to be replaced by the year 2050. This would imply a construction program at a rate of 9 units connected to the grid each year, about the highest observed rate in the past. On top of this replacement building program the capacity would have to be expanded fourfold to reach a 1500 GWe by 2050. That would imply a constuction rate of 35 new nuclear power plants connected to the grid each year worldwide, ten times the current rate.
The graph of the world nuclear capacity over time exhibits a remarkably smooth S-curve. Such a curve is typical for the adoption of new technologies in social systems: first the development phase and slow growth, than the introduction phase with exponential growth and finally a phase in which a level of maximum implementation is reached. Curves similar to the nuclear capacity versus time curve exist, for example, with regard to the initial development of the internal combustion engine and the gas turbine [more i29].
How likely is a nuclear renaissance?
Innovative nuclear technology, needed to start a new adoption curve development, will not hold its 50 years old promise, because the envisioned advanced nuclear concepts turned out to be unfeasible, an observation based on the fundamental laws of nature [more i30]. This implies that a nuclear renaissance has to be based on the currently available nuclear power technology. A nuclear renaissance based on the present state of technology seems not very likely for several reasons:
• The global production capacity of nuclear power plants at the current state of technology is not able to keep the global nuclear capacity flat at its present level, let alone an increase would be possible.
• The current nuclear power technology has reached its saturation level in the world energy supply for more than a decade and is now entering obsolescence [more i47].
• The present nuclear fleet depends on the availability of high-quality uranium resources. These resources will get exhausted by the year around 2050. The chances of discovery of new very large high-quality uranium resources, needed to feed a nuclear renaissance, seem very dim, in view of the evidence of the past decades. Unconventional uranium resources, such as phospate rock, shales and uranium from the sea, are no option, for reason of the prohibitive amounts of materials and useful energy required to exploit these sources, not to speak about the damage to the biosphere caused by exploitation of these unconventional resources [more i38].
• The much advocated low-carbon property of nuclear power will evaporate over time, due to the CO2 trap [more i05].
• Nuclear power is extremely material-intensive [more i13] and consequently energy-intensive. The production of the high-grade materials required for the nuclear process chain will become increasingly energy-intensive, due to depletion of the highest-quality mineral resources [more. As a result the energy balance of nuclear power will decline over time. This effect comes on top of the energy cliff [more i38].
Figure 28-1. World nuclear capacity, past and future.
The nuclear capacity does not equal the actually operating capacity. The blue bars represent the historic nuclear capacity and include the nuclear power stations shut down in Germany and Japan after the Fukushima disaster. The nuclear cpacity will gradually decline during the next decades due to the closedown of power plants reaching the end of their operational life. This forecast is based on on the known ages of the currently operating reactors and on the number of reactors at present under construction or planned. Average operational lifetime is assumed to be 40 years. To keep capacity at the current level by 2050-2060 as much nuclear power plants have to be built by that year as has been done during the past decades. Such a construction program would mean a nuclear renaissance in itself.