Nuclear to 2030: up or down?

1 April 2014



The World Nuclear Association’s latest projections for nuclear generating capacity in the period from 2013 to 2030 give mixed messages. In the high case, capacity could almost double from 374 GWe today to 700 GWe by 2030, while the low-case projections see nuclear capacity falling to 340 GWe.


WNA nuclear projections

Despite its rapid expansion to date to become a major source of electricity in most major economic regions, the future position of nuclear electricity continues to face some uncertainty.

The Fukushima accident of March 2011 has had an impact on the prospects for nuclear generation as reactors have been permanently shut down in Germany and Japan (Fukushima Daiichi 1-6) and slowdowns in programmes are happening elsewhere. The accident has spurred improvements to design and to emergency response. It also highlighted the need to reinforce the independence of national nuclear authorities, and strengthen skills and best practices at a world level. Although it is still too early to assess the full impact, it is possible to make a few reasonable deductions as to the nature of these impacts.

With regard to the currently-operating nuclear reactors, some may face closure earlier than previously expected. In some cases, required expenditure on the reactors to improve safety may not be worthwhile. In others, the economic arguments for continued operation may remain very strong, but politics may intrude.

"In the absence of political impositions, the prospects for new reactors in many countries remain good"

In the absence of political impositions, the prospects for new reactors in many countries remain good. Furthermore, new nuclear countries like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey or Belarus have launched nuclear programmes in order to assure their electricity production.

There are essentially two main aspects to estimating future nuclear generating capacity: the outlook for the continued operation of existing plants and the prospects for the construction of new reactors.

Existing reactors

Unless there is a further upturn in construction within the next ten years or so, it is conceivable that the majority of reactors likely to be operating in 2030 are already in use today. Thus, projecting the operating lifetimes of current reactors is as important in estimating future capacity as assessing the prospects for the construction of new reactors.

Operating reactors are subject to continuous upgrading and replacement of components, as well as rigorous licensing and inspection regimes. It is expected that many, if not most, reactors may operate for longer than 40 years, and may therefore need to apply for re-licensing to continue to run.

How long existing reactors will in fact remain in operation depends on a number of factors, which vary from country to country. The most important of these are the licensing procedures applying to life extensions, public acceptance and the economic attractiveness of continued operation. The latter will depend partly on the state of the electricity market in which the reactor is operating, the price for which the plant's output can be sold, the types of electricity supply contract which are permitted, the availability of capital for construction of replacement generating capacity, and so on.

Environmental considerations (for example, the avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions) may also influence reactor lifetimes in the future.

For existing reactors, projections include an estimation of the reactor lifetime that is based on consideration of the technical, licensing and policy issues within the framework of each scenario (see below.)

New reactors

"There are currently few firm plans for new reactors in the developed industrial economies of Western Europe and North America."

There are currently few firm plans for new reactors in the developed industrial economies of Western Europe and North America. An important reason for this is the low expectations for future power demand growth, which is partly a result of the mature stage that has been reached with the 'electrification' of the economy and society and partly a result of policy measures taken in many countries to increase energy efficiency. In a few countries, the high level of existing nuclear development places limits on the desire for further expansion.

The situation is very different in some of the rapidly-growing Asian countries. A combination of lack of domestic energy resources, rapidly increasing power demand and desire to diversify and secure energy supply have resulted in a growing nuclear presence. There is also a renewed interest from countries that currently have no nuclear capacity. There are a number of global influences on the prospects for nuclear power, namely the impacts of other generating technologies, security of supply, environmental aspects, electricity market restructuring and opposition forces, which are worth briefly discussing before looking at the situation in individual countries.


Three scenarios

‘The Global Nuclear Fuel Market: Supply and Demand 2013-2030" has prepared three scenarios for world nuclear generating capacity up to 2030, referred to as the reference, upper and lower scenarios. These range from strongly positive to slightly negative growth of nuclear power over the projection period. The three scenarios each represent varied positions on the future economics of nuclear power, concerns about global warming, electricity market restructuring, the Fukushima accident and public acceptance towards nuclear. In summary:

Reference scenario

  • Continued improvements in the relative economics of nuclear power generation.
  • Moves to incorporate the external costs of fossil fuel electricity generation into relative prices begin to achieve a slow shift in the mix of energy sources.
  • The gradual restructuring and liberalization of electricity sectors continues in many key countries. Both state and private investment in large, long-term projects improves.
  • Most countries continue with their previous plans, despite the Fukushima accident.
  • Public acceptance problems for nuclear projects begin to diminish.

Upper scenario

  • Significant improvements in the relative economics of nuclear power.
  • Policies are introduced around the world to encourage energy sources with zero or low greenhouse gas emissions, in order to alter the energy mix significantly.
  • Electricity market restructuring revitalizes the sector and leads to many new investment projects.
  • Fukushima has little adverse impact.
  • Substantial progress is made with public acceptance of nuclear safety and waste.

Lower scenario

  • Investment in new nuclear power projects appears uncompetitive.
  • Governments are slow to introduce substantial measures to alter the fuel mix.
  • Electricity market restructuring in many key countries leaves major energy investment decisions to be taken by private investors with short-term horizons.
  • Fukushima significantly depresses prospects.
  • Public acceptance problems increase.

No attempt is made to attach probabilities to the scenarios. In principle, the starting point is that all three must be entirely plausible as representations of future events and worthy of the reader's consideration.

World nuclear generation capacity is now 374 GWe (this figure includes all Japanese reactors except Fukushima Daiichi 1-4). In the reference scenario, capacity is expected to rise to 433 GWe by 2020 and to 574 GWe by 2030. The annual average rate of growth over the whole period is 2.6%, sufficient to maintain the nuclear share of world electricity at close to the current 12% level to 2030. In the upper scenario, the equivalent figures are 466 GWe in 2020 and 700 GWe in 2030. In the lower scenario, nuclear generating capacity slightly increases to 403 GWe in the period to 2020 and then drops away to 341 GWe with many reactor closures in the period to 2030.

"The annual average rate of growth over the whole period is 2.6%, sufficient to maintain the nuclear share of world electricity at close to the current 12% level to 2030."

The three scenarios for nuclear generating capacity are shown for the period to 2030 in Figure 1. Each are plotted against the previous forecast in 2011. Note that the reduction of the 2013 reference scenario compared with the 2011 report is in the short-term principally due to changes in the projections for Japan. The three scenarios begin to diverge beyond 2015, as reactor construction programmes get better established in the upper scenario and closures increase in the lower.

Beyond 2020, the scenarios begin to diverge much more significantly. In the lower scenario reactor closures become very significant. The reference scenario increases more quickly and reaches 574 GWe by 2030 (from 374 GWe today, which includes the currently closed Japanese capacity). Growth in the upper scenario also accelerates as substantial reactor building programmes take off around the world. The reference scenario implies an annual generation growth rate of 3.0% versus 4.2% for the upper and 0% for the lower case, although the reference and upper cases include a projected reopening of Japanese reactors. It is worth noting that despite the challenges facing new nuclear development, the projected growth rates in the upper and reference scenarios are higher than in any of the WNA projections over the last 20 years.

An important consideration for the post-2030 period is the likely introduction of advanced nuclear technologies, such as fast neutron and high temperature reactors.

Figure 2 shows the reference scenario for generating capacity to 2030 by region. The increasing significance of East Asia stands out sharply, as does the emergence of South Asia. In the longer term the US and China also have an impact. In the US, the reference scenario reflects fewer new-build projects. For China, an impressive nuclear expansion is maintained but scaled back somewhat to account for the two-year halt in new nuclear projects after Fukushima.


This article is based on the World Nuclear Association report "The Global Nuclear Fuel Market: Supply and Demand 2013-2030" (ISBN 9780955078477). The report also includes projections for supply and demand of uranium supply, conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication services.

Figure 1: Reference, upper and lower scenarios for nuclear generating capacity to 2030 according to 2013 and 2011 estimates (Source: WNA). Generation figures in GWe. Figure 1: Reference, upper and lower scenarios for nuclear generating capacity to 2030 according to 2013 and 2011 estimates (Source: WNA). Generation figures in GWe.
Figure 2: The best outlook for growth in nuclear power (measured in GWe) remains in Asia Figure 2: The best outlook for growth in nuclear power (measured in GWe) remains in Asia


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