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Robert Rapier

Robert Rapier

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Can China's Nuclear Ambitions Offset Its Coal Addiction?

  • While global nuclear power growth has been slow, China's nuclear power generation has more than tripled in the last decade.
  • Despite leading in nuclear power production, the U.S. has seen stagnant growth in the sector, with new reactors coming online after three decades.
  • As the world aims for net zero energy by 2050, there's a pressing need to bolster nuclear output and combat public skepticism about its safety.

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.

Global Nuclear Consumption

Global Nuclear Power Generation 1965-2022. ROBERT RAPIER

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.

US Nuclear Consumption

U.S. Nuclear Nower Generation 1965-2022. ROBERT RAPIER

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.

Top 10 Nuclear

Top 10 Nuclear Power Producers. ROBERT RAPIER

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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.

By Robert Rapier 

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Leave a comment
  • Mamdouh Salameh on September 16 2023 said:
    First things first.

    1- The notion of net-zero emissions by 2050 or 2100 or ever is a myth. It is the biggest lie in history.

    2- And while nuclear power produces no carbon dioxide emissions while generating electricity, it leaves behind something thousands of times more toxic than carbon emissions: radioactive waste which even after it has been reprocessed, it will still have to be buried deep underground in cement and steel containers and monitored for thousands of years in case of leaking.

    And while the U.S. still leads the world in nuclear power production with a 30.3% global share, China is expected to surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest nuclear power producer within a decade.

    China has been leapfrogging the United States in all fields that matter from the size of its economy to seaport trade traffic accounting for 31.3% of the global seaport traffic or 4.31 times the size of the United States’, exports of goods and imports of crude, investments in renewables and many aspects io technology. Nuclear power is no exception.

    There is no doubt that nuclear power can contribute very significantly to global electricity needs particularly overcoming the intermittent nature of renewables.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert
  • Mamdouh Salameh on September 16 2023 said:
    To some extent it could reduce coal consumption in China but not by much. The reasons are that coal is the cheapest electricity generator and second countries with vast reserves of coal aren't going to keep these reserves underground.

    Coal is a very important economic source to many regions in China and even to North-Rhine-Westphalia region in Germany.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert

Leave a comment




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