Nuclear power and its upstart sibling wind power share certain features in common -- relatively high capital costs, comparatively low operating and maintenance costs, and significantly lower lifetime carbon emissions compared with fossil fuel fired power generation. Each has its advocates, and both have been touted as the solution to future world electricity needs. There may yet be room for them both as the 21st century unfolds -- but it will be an exciting race to watch. A comparison of development progress for the two industries, worldwide, regionally and for selected countries, suggests that wind will draw level with nuclear worldwide within ten years -- and may overtake it, if current trends continue.
For the year 2005, various sources list approximately 440 nuclear power reactors in operation worldwide, with a combined capacity of about 370 GW, producing around 2600 TWh per year. That is roughly 16% of world electricity demand, down from about 17% a decade earlier. About one-third of this capacity is found in North America, and one-third in the European Union.
Over the period 2000-2005, some 25-30 new power reactors have been reported as "under construction," mostly in India and China. About 30-40 further units are on order or planned, and another 70 or so have been proposed. Thirty-one countries have commercial power reactors, ten of these with more than 10 GW, and 56 have research reactors. In many countries, tens of thousands of people are employed in different aspects of the nuclear industry (about 30,000 in Britain alone).
Although its proponents are calling for the nuclear industry worldwide to increase in size by between seven and 20-fold in the next 50 years, the required build rate of power plants is unlikely to be achieved: it would require construction of more than one 1000 MW plant per week for several decades. Following an ordering boom in the 1970s, reactor commissioning peaked briefly in the mid-1980s at around 40 GW per year, but has since dwindled to a trickle. In fact, the nuclear industry worldwide is virtually stagnant and nuclear capacity is set to decline in many countries, as projected and actual closure rates exceed new power plant starts.
In pressing governments to support new-build and replacement capacity, the industry appears to be exercising its first option, to promote the licensing and construction of the latest generation of light-water reactor design, such as the Westinghouse AP 1000, while holding back on its second, to develop the so-called "Generation IV" reactors, which may still be some 20 years away from commercial deployment. They are intended to be inherently safe, and more suited to co-production of hydrogen and high-temperature process heat together with electricity.
Wind on the rise
The volume of wind power capacity at the end of 2004 was about 57 GW, producing an estimated 120 TWh/year. More than two-thirds of both capacity (40 GW) and annual generation occurs in the 25 member states of the EU, and about one-sixth in North America. Wind-related employment in the 15 member countries prior to expansion grew from 25,000 in 1998 to about 72,000 in 2004; the number of people employed in the industry worldwide is estimated to be over 100,000.
Changes in the worldwide wind industry have been rapid and flexible, responding to demand and levels of market support. Over the period 2000-2005, installed capacity has continued to grow at 20-30% per annum, doubling every three to four years. In a scenario published by the European Wind Energy Association and Greenpeace, Windforce 12, wind power stations are projected to be generating 3000 TWh/year by 2020, based on an installed capacity of 1200 GW. Medium-term projections of global wind capacity range from about 150 GW to 300 GW by around 2012. Around 40 countries have visible amounts of wind power (more than 10 MW) and ten now approach or exceed 1 GW installed capacity.
In the absence of a dramatic upturn in nuclear power plant construction, simple mathematical projections demonstrate that worldwide installed wind power capacity is likely to overtake nuclear capacity some time towards the end of the period 2010-2015. Nuclear has a higher load factor than wind, so nuclear production will not be surpassed by wind until around 2020.
Direct and indirect employment is harder to compare, with a likely degree of overlap between component suppliers to both technologies, but it is plausible that wind employment may be the greater beyond 2010.
In the EU, wind capacity is presently about one-quarter of nuclear, and electricity generation about one-eighth of nuclear output. In three countries with significant nuclear industries (Spain, Germany and India), installed wind power capacity already exceeds, or is about to exceed nuclear -- a technology that has been around for decades longer.
The forthcoming nuclear eclipse is therefore almost a certainty -- and its date is becoming easier to predict.
Data sources: IEA Wind, Global Wind Energy Council, EWEA, IAEA, World Nuclear Association, World Association of Nuclear Operators