The nuclear renaissance hits a roadblock

Just maintaining the nuclear status quo will be a monumental task

Published September 3, 2009 2:35PM (EDT)

Whither the nuclear renaissance?

The Nuclear Engineering Institute (NEI) excerpts the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2009," an annual study commissioned and published by Germany's Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. NEI describes the ministry as "anti-nuclear," but at least some of the facts presented in the study seem worth mulling over. The percentage of the world's power produced by nuclear plants is in decline, and the existing facilities are nearing the end of their expected lifetimes. Just maintaining the status quo will require a Herculean effort.

As of 1 August 2009 there were 435 (370GW) nuclear reactors operating in the world and 52 units listed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as "under construction". At the peak in 2002 there were 444 operating nuclear reactors.

"With extremely long lead times of 10 years and more, it will be practically impossible to maintain, let alone increase the number of operating nuclear power plants over the next 20 years," the report says. (The one exception to this outcome would be if operating lifetimes could be substantially increased beyond 40 years on average; there is currently no basis for such an assumption.)

Assuming an average lifetime of 40 years for all operating and in-construction reactors, in order to maintain the same number of operating plants the report concludes that an additional 42 reactors (16GW) would have to be planned, built and started up by 2015 -- that is one every month and a half. An extra 192 units (170GW) would need to be commissioned over the following 10-year period -- one every 19 days, according to the report.

But heck, if that seems too hard, there's always space-based solar.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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