Governments are still spending billions on nuclear research, writes Paul Brown – but 2015 looks like being an unhappy year for the industry as it continues to shrink while renewables grow, amid massive delays and cost over-runs.
With nuclear power falling ever further behind renewables as a global energy source, and as the price of oil and gas falls, the future of the industry in 2015 and beyond looks bleak.
Renewables now supply 22% of global electricity and nuclear only 11% – a share that is gradually falling as old plants close and fewer new ones are commissioned.
New large-scale installations of wind and solar power arrays continue to surge across the world. Countries without full grids and power outages, such as India, increasingly find that wind and solar are quick and easy ways to bring electricity to people who have previously had no supply.
Developed countries, meanwhile, faced with reducing carbon dioxide emissions, find that the cost of both these renewable technologies is coming down substantially.
Subsidies for wind and solar are being reduced and, in some cases, will disappear altogether in the next 10 years.
Renewables' enviable speed of installation
The other advantage that renewables have is speed of installation. Solar panels, once manufactured, can be installed on a rooftop and be in operation in a single day. Wind turbines can be put up in a week.
Nuclear power, on the other hand, continues to get more expensive. In China and Russia, costs are not transparent, and even in democracies they hard to pin down. But it is clear that they are rising dramatically.
Building of the proposed twin European Pressurised Water reactors, called Hinkley Point C, in Britain's West Country is due to start in 2015, but the price has risen several times already. Estimated construction costs have now jumped from £16 billion to £24 billion – before the first concrete has even been poured.
The other problem with nuclear is the time frame. Originally, Hinkley Point C was due to be completed by 2018. This has now slipped to 2024, but even this is optimistic judging by the performance of the two prototypes in Finland and France, both of which are late and over budget.
The Finnish plant was due to open in 2009, but is still at least three years from commissioning. The French plant is five years overdue.
In many countries, there are plans on paper for new nuclear stations, and China, South Korea and India are among those that are continuing to build them. Other countries, particularly where private capital is needed to finance them, are putting their plans on hold.