Solar, wind grabbing more of nuclear energy share, study finds

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The latest Vital Signs Online analysis from sustainability organization the Worldwatch Institute has found that solar and wind energy’s continued expansion has been largely at the expense of nuclear power.

Although both renewable energy sources have a long way to go until they catch up with fossil fuel power plants, nuclear’s surging growth of the ’70s and ’80s has not only stalled in recent years, but actively fallen as solar and wind have taken up the ‘alternative’ mantle.

From a peak of 17.6% in 1996, nuclear’s share of global power production capacity has since fallen to 10.8%, according to the Institute. Since 2000, when the share of renewable power was 18.7%, solar and wind have ramped up their cumulative capacity impressively: in 2012 the two sources accounted for 22.7% of all power production, and that figure is likely to have reached almost 25% by 2014, sources say.

In terms of GW capacity, the peak for nuclear power was 2010, when the sector boasted 375.3 GW. By last year, that total had declined slightly to 371.8 GW, indicating a shrinking appetite for nuclear power across the globe. These figures, published by the International Atomic Energy Agency, are in stark contrast to the growth curve of solar power and wind power.

For solar PV, the total installed capacity globally stands at slightly more than 140 GW, but the industry’s growth trajectory is steep and rising daily. According to estimations by the International Energy Agency (IEA), investments in solar PV averaged $37 billion per year globally between 2000 and 2013. For nuclear power, that figure is just $8 billion.

However, the IEA data revealed that a number of the most economically developed countries still dedicate greater research budgets to nuclear technologies than they do for renewable sources.

The IEA says that the U.S., most European countries, Canada, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia still funnel the lion’s share of their public energy research and development (R&D) budgets into nuclear power, attracting 51% of R&D spending in these countries between 1974 and 2012 (a figure of nearly $300 billion). But at least this trend appears to be declining – in 1974 that figure was 73.6%; today, it is just 26%. For renewable energies, the average share of R&D budget for these countries over that same period was just 10.2%, but that share has increased every year since 1974.

Nuclear power has been restricted to just a handful of countries globally over the past half century due to associated costs with construction, safety, disposal and scalability. The Worldwatch Institute found that just 31 countries globally operate nuclear reactors on their territories, compared to 85 countries that have commercial wind turbines installed, and more than 100 nations that have solar PV arrays installed at capacity.

The report concludes by calling the chances of a nuclear revival "slim", adding that renewable energy’s practical, affordable solution to meeting demand will likely see it continue its global expansion at the expense of nuclear power. The question as to when renewables begin to serious decimate fossil fuels’ stranglehold was left unasked, for now…