The Nuclear Conundrum [Chart]
Median age of all operating nuclear reactors is 28.8 years and counting.
The Chart of the Week is a weekly Visual Capitalist feature on Fridays.
The nuclear sector today certainly has its immediate challenges. Costs had already been a long problem, but the incident at Fukushima complicated matters even further. The industry and regulators were forced to take a second look at its safety practices and plant designs, creating uncertainty for the sector. As of today, 2006 still remains a peak for global nuclear power generation in terms of total output, and it has steadily declined since then.
There is also another creeping issue for the industry that is raising eyebrows. According to The World Nuclear Report, there are 391 nuclear reactors in operation throughout the world. However, the median age of these reactors is now 28.8 years, due to the majority of power plants being built between 1970 and 1985.
The design specifications for most nuclear reactors envision an operating lifespan of 30 to 40 years. In the U.S. specifically, nuclear utilities are initially licensed for 40 years. Near the end of that initial timeframe, they can apply for an additional 20 years.
While there are many experts who believe that older reactors are not a problem, it is hard to imagine many families feeling safe living next to aging nuclear reactors. Furthermore, with recent evens, even more questions have surfaced about the wisdom of keeping aging reactors plugged into the grid. The Fukushima Daiichi units (1 to 4) were first commissioned between 1971 and 1974, and the license for the first unit had been extended for another 10 years in February 2011. This was just a month before the disaster took place.
Right now, most operators are doing what they can to extend the life of their reactors. However, at some point it won’t be enough.
This brings us to a challenging fork in the road: will we move forward with a fleet of aging reactors, or will we bite the bullet to build new ones? If we decommission them without replacement, how will that power supply be replaced?
Visualizing China’s Dominance in Clean Energy Metals
Despite being the world’s biggest carbon emitter, China is also a key producer of most of the critical minerals for the green revolution.
Visualizing China’s Dominance in Clean Energy Metals
Renewable sources of energy are expected to replace fossil fuels over the coming decades, and this large-scale transition will have a downstream effect on the demand of raw materials. More green energy means more wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries needed, and more clean energy metals necessary to build these technologies.
This visualization, based on data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), illustrates where the extraction and processing of key metals for the green revolution take place.
It shows that despite being the world’s biggest carbon polluter, China is also the largest producer of most of the world’s critical minerals for the green revolution.
Where Clean Energy Metals are Produced
China produces 60% of all rare earth elements used as components in high technology devices, including smartphones and computers.
The country also has a 13% share of the lithium production market, which is still dominated by Australia (52%) and Chile (22%). The highly reactive element is key to producing rechargeable batteries for mobile phones, laptops, and electric vehicles.
But even more than extraction, China is the dominant economy when it comes to processing operations. The country’s share of refining is around 35% for nickel, 58% for lithium, 65% for cobalt, and 87% for rare earth elements.
Despite being the largest economy in the world, the U.S. does not appear among the largest producers of any of the metals listed. To shorten the gap, the Biden administration recently launched an executive order to review the American strategy for critical and strategic materials.
It’s also worth noting that Russia also does not appear among the top producers when it comes to clean energy metals, despite being one of the world’s leading producers of minerals like copper, iron, and palladium.
Low Regulation in the Clean Metal Supply Chain
While China leads all countries in terms of cobalt processing, the metal itself is primarily extracted in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Still, Chinese interests own 15 of the 17 industrial cobalt operations in the DRC, according to a data analysis by The New York Times and Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.
Unfortunately, the DRC’s cobalt production has been criticized due to reports of corruption and lack of regulation.
Part of the Congolese cobalt comes from artisanal mines with low regulation. Of the 255,000 Congolese artisanal miners, an estimated 40,000 are children, some as young as six years old.
The Rise of Clean Energy Metals
The necessary shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy opens up interesting questions about how geopolitics, and these supply chains, will be affected.
In the race to secure raw materials needed for the green revolution, new world powers could emerge as demand for clean energy metals grows.
For now, China has the lead.
Ranked: Nuclear Power Production, by Country
Nuclear power accounted for 10% of global electricity generated in 2020. Here’s a look at the largest nuclear power producers.
Nuclear Power Production by Country
Nearly 450 reactors around the world supply various nations with nuclear power, combining for about 10% of the world’s electricity, or about 4% of the global energy mix.
But while some countries are turning to nuclear as a clean energy source, nuclear energy generation overall has seen a slowdown since its peak in the 1990s.
The above infographic breaks down nuclear electricity generation by country in 2020 using data from the Power Reactor Information System (PRIS).
Ranked: The Top 15 Countries for Nuclear Power
Just 15 countries account for more than 91% of global nuclear power production. Here’s how much energy these countries produced in 2020:
|Rank||Country||Number of Operating Reactors||Nuclear Electricity Supplied|
|#5||South Korea 🇰🇷||24||152,583||6.0%|
|Rest of the World 🌎||44||207,340||8.1%|
In the U.S., nuclear power produces over 50% of the country’s clean electricity. Additionally, 88 of the country’s 96 operating reactors in 2020 received approvals for a 20-year life extension.
China, the world’s second-largest nuclear power producer, is investing further in nuclear energy in a bid to achieve its climate goals. The plan, which includes building 150 new reactors by 2035, could cost as much as $440 billion.
On the other hand, European opinions on nuclear energy are mixed. Germany is the eighth-largest on the list but plans to shutter its last operating reactor in 2022 as part of its nuclear phase-out. France, meanwhile, plans to expand its nuclear capacity.
Which Countries Rely Most on Nuclear Energy?
Although total electricity generation is useful for a high-level global comparison, it’s important to remember that there are some smaller countries not featured above where nuclear is still an important part of the electricity mix.
Here’s a breakdown based on the share of nuclear energy in a country’s electricity mix:
|Rank||Country||Nuclear Share of Electricity Mix|
|#13||South Korea 🇰🇷||29.6%|
|#17||United States 🇺🇸||19.7%|
|#19||United Kingdom 🇬🇧||14.5%|
European countries dominate the leaderboard with 14 of the top 15 spots, including France, where nuclear power is the country’s largest source of electricity.
It’s interesting to note that only a few of these countries are top producers of nuclear in absolute terms. For example, in Slovakia, nuclear makes up 53.6% of the electricity mix—however, the country’s four reactors make up less than 1% of total global operating capacity.
On the flipside, the U.S. ranks 17th by share of nuclear power in its mix, despite producing 31% of global nuclear electricity in 2020. This discrepancy is largely due to size and population. European countries are much smaller and produce less electricity overall than larger countries like the U.S. and China.
The Future of Nuclear Power
The nuclear power landscape is constantly changing.
There were over 50 additional nuclear reactors under construction in 2020, and hundreds more are planned primarily in Asia.
As countries turn away from fossil fuels and embrace carbon-free energy sources, nuclear energy might see a resurgence in the global energy mix despite the phase-outs planned in several countries around the globe.
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