The main factor that explains the projected slow-down of nuclear power’s global expansion is cheap natural gas.
Nuclear experts say natural gas has made nuclear power look much less appealing to a utility company when the cost is usually the bottom line in decision-making.
“The main reason is that the price of oil has gone down,” said Lady Barbara Judge, former head of the UK Atomic Energy Agency. “Nuclear used to be a good source of low-cost baseload generation but as the price of oil went down, the price of nuclear went up, not only just in comparison, but because new nuclear plants had new safety features that were more expensive than old plants, so they became more expensive to build.”
For William Tobey, senior fellow at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University in the US, the combination of cheap natural gas and post-Fukushima safety concerns has limited the growth of nuclear power.
“I’m not certain it makes sense to try to change that dynamic, except by introducing safer and more efficient reactors,” he said. “For example, [the] logic of small modular reactors is that a single design and mass production of parts could make licensing and operation of reactors much cheaper on a cost per kilowatt basis. That concept has not yet been proven but, if it were, it would make nuclear energy much more attractive.”
Alternatives to nuclear are said to be growing significantly as developed economies are becoming more efficient with energy use.
“I don't think we should do things to expand nuclear power by itself,” said Miles Pomper, senior research associate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington. “If we decide to put in more restrictive carbon policies, which I would support, that should help nuclear power. But there's no reason to subsidise the nuclear industry per se.”