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Climate-friendly but less and less profitable: ESYS experts on the future of nuclear power

28. January 2020

While Germany is committed to shutting down all its nuclear power plants by 2022, other countries such as China, Russia and Japan are increasing the share of nuclear power in their energy mix. What role will nuclear power play in the future of both global electricity generation and climate protection? The joint Academies’ Project “Energy Systems of the Future” (ESYS) provides clear answers to these questions in its new publication format “In a Nutshell!”. The project’s experts conclude that nuclear power will struggle to remain competitive in years to come. In order to be profitable, nuclear reactors must operate 24/7. Moreover, higher safety standards have caused investment costs to escalate, and costs have been pushed up still further by rising risk premiums for the permanent disposal of nuclear waste.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s comments about nuclear power have reignited the debate about its role by reiterating the IPCC’s suggestion that nuclear power can be a small part of a low-carbon energy supply. There is no disputing the fact that nuclear power has very low carbon emissions. But what are the risks, and can nuclear reactors still be built and operated profitably? In the new publication format “In a Nutshell!”, ESYS experts analyse the importance of nuclear power for the future of global electricity generation.

They conclude that the answer to the question of whether nuclear power can be generated more cheaply than renewable energy varies from one country to another, depending on the market design, policy instruments and proportion of renewables in the system. In Germany, for example, electricity from nuclear power costs around the same as electricity from renewable sources, whereas it is more expensive than green electricity in the US and cheaper in South Korea.

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One thing we can say for sure is that in deregulated electricity markets, the private sector will only keep building nuclear power plants if governments offer price guarantees for the electricity they generate, as is currently the case in the United Kingdom, for example. ESYS spokesperson Dirk Uwe Sauer (RWTH Aachen University) sums up the financial barriers to building new nuclear: “Higher safety standards have made investing in nuclear power more expensive. Nuclear power plants can only run profitably if they operate 24/7. However, this is not feasible if renewable energy production keeps increasing. Furthermore, because of the long timescales involved in planning and building nuclear power plants, coupled with their long operating life, there is a greater risk of alternative electricity generation technologies becoming cheaper during their lifetime. This means that in deregulated electricity markets, nuclear power is already struggling to remain competitive”. Meanwhile, the cost of investing in renewable energy has fallen continuously in recent times, and investment in wind turbines and solar PV is open not only to companies but also to cooperatives and private individuals. On the other hand, because the variable costs of existing nuclear power plants are relatively low, many countries are planning to extend their operating lives.

While Germany is systematically phasing out nuclear power, other countries are expanding their nuclear power capacity, with 55 new reactors currently being built around the world. Together, the US and France account for almost half of global nuclear power production, with France alone generating half of the EU’s nuclear electricity. And nuclear is set to remain an integral part of France’s energy supply in the future. In China, nuclear power is growing faster than anywhere else in the world – the Chinese government is currently building eleven new reactors. Russia is also building new nuclear power plants, while Japan has now restarted nine reactors that were closed in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Although the electricity generated by nuclear power plants has very low CO2 emissions, only a handful of countries have included nuclear power in their climate pledges – the vast majority intend to meet their climate targets by expanding renewable energy instead.

The ESYS experts expect there to be a slight increase in nuclear power production over the coming years. However, due to the ongoing increase in overall electricity production, nuclear’s share of global electricity generation is actually falling – it declined from 17.5 percent in 1996 to 10.2 percent in 2018. And there is one big challenge that has yet to be addressed, as Dirk Uwe Sauer explains: “We still don’t know what we are going to do with nuclear waste. In research, education and industry, we must maintain and in some cases rebuild expertise in the decommissioning of nuclear power plants and the permanent disposal of nuclear waste”.

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