Advocates of nuclear energy have long been predicting its renaissance, yet this mode of producing electricity has been stalled for years. Renewable energy, by contrast, continues to expand rapidly, even if it still has a long way to go to catch up with fossil fuel power plants, according to a new report from the Worldwatch Institute.
The independent research organization says nuclear energy's share of global power production has declined steadily from a peak of 17.6% in 1996 to 10.8% in 2013. Renewables increased their global share from 18.7% in 2000 to 22.7% in 2012.
Citing statistics from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the report says that following a rapid rise from its beginnings in the mid-1950s, global nuclear power generating capacity peaked at 375.3 GW in 2010. Capacity has since declined to 371.8 GW in 2013. The report says adverse economics, concern about reactor safety and proliferation, and the unresolved question of what to do with nuclear waste have put the brakes on the industry.
In stark contrast, the report says wind and solar power generating capacities are now on the same soaring trajectory that nuclear power was on in the 1970s and 1980s. Global wind capacity of 320 GW in 2013 is equivalent to nuclear capacity in 1990. The report says the 140 GW in solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity is still considerably smaller, but growing rapidly.
In recent years, renewable energy has attracted far greater investments than nuclear power. Citing estimates by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the report says nuclear investments averaged $8 billion per year between 2000 and 2013, compared with $37 billion for solar PV and $43 billion for wind. The report notes that individual countries, of course, set diverging priorities, but nowhere did nuclear have a major role in power generation investments.
In contrast with investment priorities, research budgets still favor nuclear technologies, the report notes. Among members of the IEA (most European countries, the U.S., Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand), nuclear power has received the lion's share of public energy research and development (R&D) budgets during the last four decades. The report says nuclear energy attracted $295 billion, or 51%, of total energy R&D spending between 1974 and 2012. However, this number has declined over time, from a high of 73.6% in 1974 to 26% today. The report says renewable energy received a cumulative total of $59 billion during the same period (10.2%), but its share has risen year after year.
The report argues that because wind and solar power can be deployed at variable scales – and their facilities constructed in less time – these technologies are far more practical and affordable for most countries than nuclear power reactors. Worldwide, the report says 31 countries are operating nuclear reactors on their territories. This compares to at least 85 countries that have commercial wind turbine installations.
The report says the chances of a nuclear revival seem slim. Renewable energy, on the other hand, appears to be on the right track.