2021 saw higher nuclear generation, better reactor performance over 2020: WNA report  

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Reversing the decline in 2020 caused by Covid-19, nuclear power generation increased by 100 terawatt hours (TWh) to reach 2653 TWh in 2021, meeting 10 percent of the global electricity demand, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNN) latest performance report.  

The WNN report, published on July 26, 2022, says last year saw the third highest global generation from nuclear, just short of the 2657 TWh output of 2019 and 2660 TWh in 2006, and reestablishes the upward trend in nuclear generation seen since 2012, following a decline in 2020. 

Reactor performance improved in 2021, with the average capacity factor of the world’s operating nuclear reactors rising to 82.4 percent, from 80.3 percent in 2020. 

As per the WNN report, which builds on data collected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), construction started on 10 reactors in 2021, six of which are being built in China. This includes the start of construction of a land-based small modular reactor (SMR) at Changjiang in China’s Haiyan Province.  

Six reactors were started supplying electricity for the first time in 2021, three in China, and one each in India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. 

In 2021, nuclear generation increased in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Russia, and in South America. These increases continued upward trends seen in recent years in these regions.  

Generation also increased in West and Central Europe, although the overall trend in this region remains downward. Generation also declined for the second year running in North America as more reactors in the USA were closed. 

“The fragility of the fossil fuel supply chain has been made plain. Fossil gas prices have sky-rocketed, and with them so have electricity prices. Short-term actions in response to crisis conditions – such as re-starting coal plants – are unsustainable and many governments are now realising that nuclear energy can propel the drive to net-zero emissions and be the foundation of a more secure energy system”, WNA Director General Sama Bilbao y León said in a statement. 

“However, despite the increase in nuclear generation in 2021, there has been a decline in global nuclear capacity over the last two years. To reverse this trend, two things need to happen. First, reactors that are operating successfully today need to operate for longer. Too many of the reactor closures of the last few years have been motivated by political reasons or by dysfunctional markets. Long-term operation of nuclear reactors is the lowest cost form of additional low-carbon generation and helps reduce reliance on fossil fuels”, she said.  

“Second, the pace of new nuclear construction must increase. In 2021, first concrete was poured for ten new reactors. Although that is better than in recent years, we still need to see 20, 30 or more new reactor construction starts per year soon, to ensure that nuclear energy plays the role it should in delivering a secure and sustainable net-zero future”, Bilbao y León added.  

Although the end of year capacity of operable reactors was up in 2021, the total number of reactors was 436, down five from 2020, the report said. Nearly 70 percent of all operable reactors are pressurized water reactors (PWRs).  

With ten construction starts and six reactors connected to the grid, the total number of units under construction at the end of 2021 was 53, four more than at the end of 2020, the report added.  

Alongside eight large PWRs, in 2021 construction began on a lead-cooled fast reactor at Seversk in Russia, a small modular reactor at Changjiang in China, and units 5 and 6 of 1,000 MW capacity each at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in India being built with the assistance of Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom. 

Extending the operation of nuclear power plants is one of the lowest cost forms of additional low-carbon generation, according to WNA Senior Communications Manager Jonathan Cobb. “Operating the existing fleet of nuclear reactors for longer could make a major contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the short term, thereby tackling climate change. Therefore, it is vital to understand how reactors perform as they get older”, Cobb said. 

The report found that there is no age-related decline in reactor performance. Improvements in average global capacity factors have been achieved in reactors of all ages, not just in newer reactors of more advanced design, which strengthens the case for extending the operations of the current nuclear fleet. 

“Establishing the net-zero economy that will be needed to avoid the worst impacts of global climate change will require a total transformation of our energy system, including a far greater contribution of nuclear energy” the WNA Director General said.  

“We need to lay down human, physical, commercial and institutional infrastructures that will allow the global nuclear sector to truly scale up fast to meet the urgent and massive decarbonisation needs. Only if this is achieved will everyone have equitable access to the secure, reliable energy and electricity supplies they need to live well, and be able to preserve an environment fit to live in”, she added.  

Recent months have seen announcements of plans for new reactors from new and existing nuclear countries, including Argentina, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Egypt, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and the UK.