Nuclear power had a bad year around the globe in 2011. Though the world's energy demand grew and while more oil, coal, gas and renewable energy met the growing demand, alone among energy sources, nuclear energy declined.
The decline did not the result just from existing power plants operating poorly or temporary shutdowns from the Fukushima disaster. More troubling for the future of nuclear power, the total installed global nuclear capacity declined from 375,500 megawatts at the end of 2010 to 365,500 megawatts, as of October 2011, according to a Vital Signs report from the Worldwatch Institute. See www.worldwatch.org and the Vital Signs archive. Also see windpowerengineering.com/policy/environmental/world-nuclear-power-output-slowing/
Germany shutdown 8,000 megawatts by itself. France, United Kingdom, and Japan shutdown also a handful of plants, though only 10 of Japan's 54 reactors are operating today. A total of 13 reactors around the world were shut in the first 10 months of 2011, lowering to 433 the total of reactors operating in the world.
The portion of the world's energy coming from nuclear power stood at 5% in 2010, down from 6% ten years earlier.
It was not all bad news for the nuclear industry in 2011. About 5,000 megawatts of new nuclear plants began operations. Another 65,000 megawatts of new nuclear is under construction, though about 12,000 megawatts of that total has been under construction for an incredible 20 years.
Such long construction periods are a main reason that new nuclear plants around the world are very expensive and risky. These enormous capital costs and risks to capital mean that new nuclear plants cannot be built anywhere in the world, without governments in many different ways providing capital and insulating private investors, if they are involved, from loss of their capital.
The future of nuclear around the globe will hinge on whether costs can be driven down substantially and safety improved at the same time. That is a huge challenge for the industry that so far it has been unable to meet.
The cloudy future of the industry makes the challenge of stabilizing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and heat trapping pollution even more daunting. Addressing successfully climate change may well require a cost-effective, successful nuclear industry.