The year 2016, marking the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe and the 5th year since the Fukushima disaster started unfolding, strangely might go down in history as the period when the notion of risk of nuclear power plants turned into the perception of nuclear power plants at risk. Indeed, an increasing number of reactors is threatened by premature closure due to the unfavorable economic environment. Increasing operating and backfitting costs of aging power plants, decreasing bulk market prices and aggressive competitors.
The development started out in the U.S., when in May 2013 Kewaunee was shut down although its operator, Dominion, had upgraded the plant and in February 2011 had obtained an operating license renewal valid until 2033. Two reactors at San Onofre followed, when replacement steam generators turned out faulty. Then Vermont Yankee shut down at the end of 2014. Early shutdown decisions have also hit Pilgrim and Fitzpatrick, likely to close before the end of 2017 and 2019. Utility Exelon, largest nuclear operator in the U.S., has announced June 2, 2016 that it was retiring its Clinton (1065 MW) and Quad Cities (2 x 940 MW) nuclear facilities in 2017 as they have been losing money for several years.
Only days later, PG&E in California announced that they would close the two Diablo Canyon units by 2025, replacing the capacity by energy efficiency and renewables, making the sixth largest economy in the world (having overtaken France in 2016) nuclear-free. Still in the same month of June 2016, the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) Board voted unanimously to shut down the Fort Calhoun reactor by the end of the year—in the words on one board member, “simply an economic decision”. Nuclear Energy Institute President Marv Fertel stated in May 2016 that “if things don’t change, we have somewhere between 10 and 20 plants at risk”.
“Nuclear plants at risk”; the expression has become a common phrase in the news world, not only in the U.S. In Germany, the Grafenrheinfeld reactor was taken off the grid in 2015, six months earlier than required by law, because refueling was not worthwhile anymore. In Sweden, after two years of work and spending of several hundred million euros, upgrading was halted on Oskarshamn-2 in 2015 and the reactor was permanently closed. Oskarshamn-1 will follow in 2017 and Ringhals-1 and -2 will close in 2020 and 2019 respectively. Ringhals operator Vattenfall stated: “Sweden’s nuclear power industry is going through what is probably the most serious financial crisis since the first commercial reactors were brought into operation in the 1970s.” Even in Asia, nuclear plants are coming under economic pressure. The two Indian units Tarapur-1 and -2 are likely to be closed in the short term because they are not competitive under current market prices. “We are pouring in money into the reactors rather than making income from them”, Sekhar Basu, secretary at the Department of Atomic Energy stated.
In addition to the usual, global overview of status and trends in reactor building and operating, as well as the traditional comparison between deployment trend in the nuclear power and renewable energy sectors, the 2016 edition of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) provides an assessment of the trends of the economic health of some of the major players in the industry. Special chapters are devoted to the aftermath of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.
- Nuclear power generation in the world increased by 1.3%, entirely due to a 31% increase in China.
- Ten reactors started up in 2015—more than in any other year since 1990—of which eight were in China. Construction on all of them started prior to the Fukushima disaster.
- Eight construction starts in the world in 2015—to which China contributed six—down from 15 in 2010 of which 10 were in China. No construction starts in the world in the first half of 2016.
- The number of units under construction is declining for the third year in a row, from 67 reactors at the end of 2013 to 58 by mid-2016, of which 21 are in China.
- China spent over US$100 billion on renewables in 2015, while investment decisions for six nuclear reactors amounted to US$18 billion.
- Eight early closure decisions taken in Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the U.S.
- Nuclear phase-out announcements in the U.S. (California) and Taiwan.
- In nine of the 14 building countries all projects are delayed, mostly by several years. Six projects have been listed for over a decade, of which three for over 30 years. China is no exception here, at least 10 of 21 units under construction are delayed.
- With the exception of United Arab Emirates and Belarus, all potential newcomer countries delayed construction decisions. Chile suspended and Indonesia abandoned nuclear plans.
- AREVA has accumulated US$11 billion in losses over the past five years. French government decides €5.6 billion bailout and breaks up the company. Share value 95 percent below 2007 peak value. State utility EDF struggles with US41.5 billion debt, downgraded by S&P. Chinese utility CGN, EDF partner for Hinkley Point C, loses 60% of its share value since June 2015.
- Globally, wind power output grew by 17%, solar by 33%, nuclear by 1.3%.
- Brazil, China, India, Japan and the Netherlands now all generate more electricity from wind turbines alone than from nuclear power plants.
- Three decades after the Chernobyl accident shocked the European continent, 6 million people continue to live in severely contaminated areas. Radioactive fallout from Chernobyl contaminated 40% of Europe’s landmass. A total of 40,000 additional fatal cancer cases are expected over the coming 50 years.
- Five years after the Fukushima disaster began on the east coast of Japan, over 100,000 people remain dislocated. Only two reactors are generating power in Japan, but final closure decisions were taken on an additional six reactors that had been offline since 2010-11.