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Three takeaways from the 2020 World Nuclear Industry Status Report via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By John Krzyzaniak, September 25, 2020

The size of the global nuclear fleet has been stagnant for 30 years, and last year was no different. According to the 2020 World Nuclear Industry Status Report, released Thursday, there were 408 nuclear reactors online across the world as of July 1, 2020—a decline of nine units since the middle of last year and roughly on par with the number of reactors in operation in 1988.

The bulky 361-page industry report was compiled by an international team of independent experts led by Mycle Schneider, a consultant based in Paris. Over the last 15 years, it has become well-known for offering accurate but often sobering assessments of the state of nuclear energy across the globe. Last year, Schneider pointedly asserted that “the world is experiencing an undeclared ‘organic’ nuclear phaseout.”

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First, although the raw number of worldwide reactors is well below its all-time high of 438, their actual combined electricity generation came close to setting a record. As a whole, they generated 2,657 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2019, only three terawatt-hours below the historic peak in 2006. The United States, Russia, and China all hit individual country records for total electricity production from nuclear energy. Nevertheless, nuclear energy’s share of the energy market is in long-term decline, as other forms of energy witness rapid expansion.

Second, China continues to be the main driver of new nuclear energy, but over the long term its intentions are uncertain. The number of new projects there appears to be slowing. Whereas two years ago there were 20 units under construction, today there are only 15. Moreover, China missed its nuclear energy goals for 2020 by a sizeable margin: It planned to have 58 gigawatts of installed nuclear capacity and 30 more gigawatts under construction, but it currently has about 45 gigawatts capacity online and only 14 more under construction.

Third, reactor construction delays and cost overruns continue to plague the nuclear industry and, notably, early indications suggest that small modular reactors may be no exception.

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