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Robert Rapier

Robert Rapier

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The World Can’t Let Nuclear Energy Die


This is the final article in a series based on BP’s recently-released Statistical Review of World Energy 2019. Previous articles in this series covered carbon dioxide emissions, petroleum supply and demand, the production and consumption of coal, global natural gas trends, and the continued explosion in the growth of renewable energy:

Today, I want to discuss nuclear energy. First, I will cover the statistics on nuclear energy, but then I want to highlight why it is important that we continue to develop and advance nuclear technology.

Nuclear: By the Numbers

In 2018, the world produced 2,701 terawatt-hours (TWh) of nuclear power. This represents a slight decline over the past decade, but that’s somewhat misleading. Global nuclear power production dropped by 10 percent from 2010 t0 2012, a consequence of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. But global nuclear power generation has risen every year since 2012.

Of course this wasn’t the first accident to impact the nuclear power industry. The most serious incident was the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The pace of global nuclear power growth slowed significantly following Chernobyl, but it didn’t contract as it did following the Fukushima accident.

(Click to enlarge)

Nuclear power generation 1965-2018.

The U.S. remains by far the world’s leading producer of nuclear power. In 2018, the U.S. generated 850 TWh of nuclear power, which represented 31.4 percent of the world’s total nuclear generation. France was in second place, well behind with the U.S. with 15.3 percent of the global share. But, the U.S. has nearly five times the population of France, so France does lead on a per capita basis.

China was in third place with a 10.9 percent global share of nuclear generation. However, China’s nuclear program is noteworthy, as they are only one of two countries that grew nuclear power by an annual average above 10 percent over the past decade. (Pakistan is the other country, but they have a minuscule 0.4 percent global share). China also has more nuclear power plants being planned than any other country. Related: Another Beneficiary Of The OPEC Deal Emerges

Rounding out the Top 5 global nuclear producers were Russia (7.6 percent global share) and South Korea (4.9 percent global share).

Japan had the largest percentage increase of nuclear power in 2018, with a 68.9 percent rise over 2017 production. Nevertheless, nuclear generation in Japan remains well below pre-Fukushima levels.

Japan wasn’t the only country that experienced growth in nuclear power in 2018. China, Switzerland, Pakistan, Taiwan, Mexico, and Argentina all experienced double-digit gains in nuclear power generation from 2017. Countries with double-digit declines were South Korea, Belgium, and South Africa.

Germany remains committed to completely phasing out nuclear power, but the country’s nuclear power generation was nearly unchanged from 2017. Germany remains one of the world’s Top 10 producers of nuclear power.

Nuclear Power’s Impact

As I pointed out in the previous article, renewables like wind and solar are poised to generate more electricity globally than nuclear power either this year or next year. While we can celebrate the fact that renewables are growing, it’s important to keep in mind that they aren’t growing rapidly enough to stop the growth of power produced from fossil fuels. Further, these sources don’t represent firm power that can be called upon on demand.

Last year global consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas was nearly four times the growth in renewables. As a result, global carbon dioxide emissions set a new all-time high in 2018. Those trends are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The world will experience a rapid growth rate for renewables, but even greater overall growth from fossil fuels.

Nuclear power could help solve that problem, because it is the only large-scale firm power source that doesn’t generate carbon emissions during its operation. But the general public has a fear of nuclear power. We must address and overcome this collective fear if nuclear power is to help displace fossil fuels. That can only be achieved by convincing the public that accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima are no longer possible. Related: Is This The Beginning Of The End For OPEC?


As I have written before, nuclear power plants must be designed to be fail-safe, if not fail-proof. To be fail-safe means that if an accident takes place, the system fails to a safe state. A simple example of this is an electrical fuse. If too much current tries to flow across the fuse, the fuse melts and stops the flow of electricity. Future nuclear plants must be designed in a way that provides the public with an absolute degree of confidence that they can’t have catastrophic accidents.

Public expectations may be that nuclear designs need to be fail-proof, but there are many reasons why that metric will never be achieved. The most fundamental reason is that we simply can’t guard against every possible outcome. Thus, we try to mitigate possible consequences, and implement fail-safe designs.

There are those who will still reject the idea of nuclear power under any circumstances. But there are consequences from such a stance. Some will idealistically believe that renewables will fill the world’s growing power demands, but in reality that’s just not happening.

Thus, whether you like it or not, absolute rejection of nuclear power almost certainly means higher global carbon dioxide emissions. That’s a high price to pay if you are concerned about the impacts of climate change.

By Robert Rapier

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  • Energy Audit on July 20 2019 said:
    The Arrow of Energy has been proposed a Law of Thermodynamics —
    “Energy, like time, flows from past to future” (The Fifth Law).
  • Lee James on July 21 2019 said:
    If we're to have more nuclear power, we better start today. It takes quite a long time to build a nuclear plant. And we seem to be still waiting for the much heralded fail-safe design.

    We'll be doing good just to keep existing nuclear plants operating.

    In many countries, renewable sources comfortably meet NEW power requirements. Replacing legacy plants with renewable energy is a challenge. Doing so requires national commitment along the lines of what it took to go to the moon.

    Unfortunately, I think we will choose to suffer for a time from climate change before we retire very many of our legacy gas power plants, or build more nuclear.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on July 21 2019 said:
    I share your sentiments. I have always maintained in my research, writings and lectures at the ESCP Europe Business School in London that decision-makers, environmentalists and futurists may have to accept the notion that there will neither be a post-oil era nor an imminent energy transition or a peak oil demand throughout the 21st century and probably far beyond. Oil and natural gas will continue to be the fulcrum of the global economy and global energy well into the future.

    A post-oil era is a myth. Oil will continue to reign supreme throughout the 21st century and probably far beyond.

    A peak oil demand is another myth. Peak oil demand has become one of the most contentious and fascinating debates in the oil industry over the past few years with forecasts for the pending peak seemingly creeping closer to the present with every new publication. The precise dates vary. Royal Dutch Shell, for instance, has said that the peak could come within 5-15 years. BP, for its part, says demand could plateau in the 2030s or 2040’s. While a wider use of electric vehicles (EVs) coupled with government environmental legislations could decelerate the demand for oil, EVs could never replace oil in global transport throughout the 21st century and far beyond.

    And with global oil consumption exceeding 100 million barrels a day (mbd), the notion of imminent energy transition looks like an illusion.

    In fact, the percentage of fossil fuels in the world’s energy mix is still lingering well above 80%, a figure that has changed little in 30 years. That remains the case despite being challenged by serious environmental policies and despite a global expenditure of $ 3.0 trillion on renewable energy during the last decade according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). This is a hefty price to pay just to gain only a percentage point of market share from coal.

    And whilst wind and solar are being deployed quickly at an exponential rate, renewable energy installations are far too slow to catch the still-voracious appetite for fossil fuels. It is a fact needing acknowledgement in a world of over seven billion people, each of whom is wanting for more light, heat, mobility and gadgetry.

    If that is the case, then nuclear power will continue to be an integral part of the global energy mix throughout the 21st century and far beyond despite the disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima. Furthermore, nuclear power is the only large-scale electricity generation entity that doesn’t generate carbon emissions.

    And while renewables like wind and solar are poised to generate more electricity globally than nuclear power in a couple of years, they are not growing rapidly enough to stop the growth of power produced from fossil fuels particularly natural gas and from nuclear energy. Moreover, these sources don’t represent firm power that can be called upon on demand.

    Germany is a case in point. It remains committed to completely phasing out nuclear power, but it has had to delay the date for the de-commissioning of its nuclear plants many times because electricity generated from renewable sources is not enough to replace nuclear electricity without resorting to increasing use of natural gas and coal thus defeating the whole purpose of its energy transition.

    Growing global demand for electricity expansion particularly with a wider use of EVs and environmental concerns will eventually prevail upon the general public to accept a small calculated risk on nuclear energy particularly with the great safety measures being incorporated into new nuclear reactors.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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