The is the sixth article in a series on the recently released 2023 Statistical Review of World Energy. Previous articles discussed the trends in global carbon dioxide emissions, the overall highlights of the Review, the production and consumption of petroleum, natural gas production and consumption, and coal production and consumption.
Today we will cover nuclear power.
Nuclear power is unique among energy sources. It can be scaled up to very large power plants, it is firm power (available upon demand), and it produces no carbon dioxide while generating electricity.
A 2017 paper from the University of Texas identified nuclear and wind power as the power sources with the lowest levelized carbon dioxide emissions (link). The levelized carbon intensity is calculated by dividing a power plants’ emissions over its lifetime by the overall expected electricity output.
Nuclear and wind were respectively 12 and 14 grams of CO2-eq (grams of CO2 equivalent) per kWh of electricity. By contrast, power produced from coal — which is still the world’s largest source of electricity — produces more than 70 times as much CO2-eq per kWh of electricity.
Yet, global nuclear power growth over the past decade has been a paltry 0.3% per year on average. In 2022, nuclear generation actually declined by 4.4%.
Of course, we can’t talk about nuclear power without mentioning the two significant disasters in the industry — the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.
The following graphic shows how these two incidents impacted the growth of nuclear power. They are the difference between a world that rapidly phased out coal, and one that didn’t. These incidents contributed to an understandable public distrust and fear of nuclear power.
The world’s appetite for nuclear power had been rising rapidly before the Chernobyl accident dramatically changed the growth trajectory. Then, Fukushima 25 years later caused global nuclear power generation to contract.
The U.S. still leads the world in nuclear power production with a 30.3% global share, but U.S. nuclear power production growth has been almost zero over the past decade. That will finally change this year, as Southern Company’s Vogtle Unit 3 successfully achieved commercial operation earlier this year, with Unit 4 on track for late 2023/early 2024 completion. These are the first nuclear reactors built from scratch in the U.S. in more than thirty years.
However, China is the fastest-growing major nuclear energy producer, more than tripling its nuclear power generation over the past decade. At the current growth rate, China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest nuclear power producer within a decade.
As the world’s largest consumer of coal, it is encouraging to see China ramping up nuclear power. India, the world’s second-largest coal consumer, is also increasing its nuclear generation, albeit much more slowly.
The International Energy Agency has projected that we will need to double the world’s nuclear output by 2050 to reach net zero energy. Although we can’t change the past, we can work to improve the public’s attitude toward nuclear power. It is possible to build, design, and operate nuclear power plants that can’t suffer the kinds of disasters seen in Chernobyl and Fukushima. It is naturally going to take some time to convince a skeptical public of this.
But the stakes are too high. We have to devote the resources into doing this. Otherwise, taking a serious bite out of global carbon emissions may be an insurmountable challenge based on the overall demand growth for energy, and the inability of renewables to even keep up with demand growth.