Nuclear energy everywhere costs an arm and a leg

Mar 30, 2024
EDF sign and cooling towers of the nuclear power plant of Nogent-sur-Seine, France.

The contribution of nuclear power to electricity generation is the lowest for thirty years and its price twice that of renewables.

It crackles like a Geiger counter in a uranium mine: in 2023, Emmanuel Macron announced plans for six additional EPR [European Pressurised Reactor] nuclear power plants. Hang on, no, perhaps fourteen in the long term.

In reviving nuclear in the name of the struggle against global warming, the European Union has followed suit. Japan is promising new developments on the nuclear front. The US is experimenting with miniature reactors. China is building with gusto … All these ‘ionising’ projects seem to indicate that fission-based nuclear power is in full swing.

In fact, it is to the contrary. A report of experts published in December 2023, the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2023 [549pp!], using data supplied by the International Atomic Energy Agency and national states, provides the evidence. The part of electricity generation due to nuclear power is the lowest in 30 years (9.2 percent), compared to near double that figure in the 1990s.

Over twenty years, the cost of a nuclear kilowatt hour has increased slightly, whereas the cost of solar and wind has plummeted (‘melted’), these days coming in at roughly half that of nuclear. In 2022, the report highlights, €35 billion has been invested in nuclear globally, compared to … €455 billion in renewables.

France is still trying to recover from an annus horribilis in 2022. In addition to higher costs associated with the war in Ukraine, reactor shutdowns have multiplied. In August 2023, 60 % of France’s 56 reactors were dysfunctional. During 2023, production has augmented, but it has stayed at the level of … 1995.

Showcases of French savoir-faire, the EPR reactors are not ‘making sparks’, accumulating shutdowns, delays (twelve years for Flamanville, on the English Channel, and thirteen years for Olkiluoto, in Finland) as well as cost blowouts (the bill multiplied by 1.7 [for now] at Hinkley Point, in Great Britain, by 3 at Olkiluoto and by 6 at Flamanville!).

During this time, plutonium (for which every gram is of fearsome toxicity), an essential fuel for these ‘toys’, piles up. The accumulated stock for France has reached an unprecedented level of 92 tonnes.

Small problem: how can EDF [Électricité de France], which has acquired a debt of €65 billion, finance the announced projects? This question doesn’t stop Brussels from supporting them – in spite of the industrial disaster on course. No matter that, for several years, within the EU, renewable energy (hydraulic, wind and solar) has generated the most electricity, ahead of nuclear, followed by gas and coal.

South Korea was formerly one of the principal international competitors of EDF for conquering foreign markets. These days South Korea shows itself more reluctant, especially after a calamitous 2022. Kepco, the national electrician, has lost more than €22 billion, adding to a debt of €131 billion – a record. Nuclear contributes 29.6 % to production, currently less than coal. But the promises – within ten years coal’s contribution is supposed to be cut in half and that of renewables tripled. As for nuclear, it will grow by … 5 %.

Japan only starts to pick up with the atom after the closure of several reactors following Fukushima. To the subsequent shortage of electricity add the financial dimension of the catastrophe: in 2021, the government estimated it at more than €200 billion. Thirteen years after the event, the Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, wants to rekindle nuclear (‘accelerate the particles’) but furnishes no details on new reactors.

Last year, production in Japan was at its lowest level (equivalent to that of the 1970s), and only 6 % of electricity was of nuclear origin. In spite of announcements, distrust persists, especially since the discovery of misrepresentations (modification of results of chemical analyses, falsification of measures of resistance of materials) of Japan Steel Works, manufacturer of components for reactors, selling them worldwide and notably to France.

China is the country the most committed to the atom. On 58 reactors currently under construction globally, 23 (40 %) are in the Middle Kingdom. However, if nuclear trots, renewables gallop, flat out. Nuclear represents 5 % of electricity, whereas wind and solar furnish 15 %, progressing more quickly than coal, which remains far and away the main ‘source of the juice’. Other vexation: Beijing exports little of its savoir-faire. This because the US, among others, which have blacklisted Chinese enterprises, accused of having siphoned American technology for its military ambitions. Slanderous!

The United States remains the champion of nuclear energy but its brainpower has not kept pace (‘their neutrons are not very quick’). In 2022, the contribution of nuclear to electricity generation has fallen to 18.2 % – the lowest rate since 1987 – less than coal and renewables, the latter passed for the first time to pole position. American reactors are on average the oldest in the world (42 years), and only two reactors have been brought into service in the last twenty-five years.

And what a debut! The AP1000 (variation of the EPR) of Vogtle (Georgia) began operation in March 2023, eight years later than planned and, above all, at an estimated cost of €28.5 billion, more than double the initial estimate. Les Echos [French business newspaper] (25/1/22) has kindly described the feat as a local ‘Flamanville’. This financial debacle has much contributed to the failure of Westinghouse, giant of nuclear reactor manufacture. The event has also provoked the shutdown of the construction site (nine years work) of two other AP1000s in South Carolina. Living fossils!

As a consequence, the US is paying more attention to mini reactors, or SMR [small modular reactors]. Save that NuScale, the champion of the type, last November, cancelled a vast construction program of six of these miniatures, for which the budget had almost tripled …

Russia is the veritable world champion of the ‘civil atom’. That said, however, it produces only 20 % of the country’s electricity. Rosatom, the Russian EDF, foreshadows a small increase to 25 %, but in … 2045. It is overseas where business is booming. Russia, a nation at war, is building reactors in countries as peaceful as Iran, Egypt, India or Turkey. Without forgetting China, one of Russia’s best customers.

Russia’s commercial secret? Its discounted prices, its turnkey packages and, above all, its control of the indispensable enriched uranium. Russia furnishes much of the latter to Europe but also to the US, 31 % of its supplies coming from Russia. All this while imposing sanctions on Putin’s country, which toys with the nuclear threat, going so far as to bomb the vicinity of Ukraine’s nuclear reactor at Zaporizhzhia – the largest such in Europe.

Business is business.


This article appeared in the French weekly Le Canard enchaîné, 24 January 2024. It has been translated by Evan Jones and is reproduced with permission.

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