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What could have been - if nuclear power deployment had not been disrupted

Peter Lang's picture
Research Associate Centre for Applied Macroeconomic Analysis, Australian National University

Peter Lang is a retired geologist and engineer with 32 years’ experience on a wide range of energy projects throughout the world, including managing energy R&D and providing policy advice for...

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  • Nov 1, 2019

If not for disruption by the anti-nuclear power protest movement the world could have had cheap, reliable, secure, sustainable comparatively safe electricity supply by now (Lang, 2017). The benefits for the global economy and human wellbeing could have been substantial: clean, safe, reliable power supply, 4.2 to 9.5 million deaths and 69 to 174 Gt CO2 emissions avoided, and nuclear providing up to 66% of the world’s power at around 10% of its current cost.

From 1954 to 1967 the cost of nuclear power plants was decreasing by around 25% per doubling of global nuclear power capacity (based on construction start dates). Then progress was disrupted. Thereafter, costs increased rapidly, by 22% to 94% per capacity doubling (except in South Korea).

“Figure 1: Overnight construction cost (in 2010 US $/kW) plotted against cumulative global capacity (GW), based on construction start dates, of nuclear power reactors for seven countries, including regression lines for US before and after 32 GW cumulative global capacity.” Source: Lang, (2017)

If the pre-1967 rates had continued the cost of nuclear power could now be around 10% of what it is (see Table 1, and Appendix B Note XII, and V).

In 1976, about 9 years after the start of the escalating costs, the global deployment rate of construction starts stalled (red bars in figure below).

“Figure 5: Annual global capacity of construction starts and commercial operation starts, 1954–2015.” Source: Lang, (2017).

If the pre-disruption deployment rate had continued, nuclear power could have been supplying around 30% to 66% of the world’s electricity in 2015 (Figure 7). By substituting for fossil fuels, nuclear power could have avoided 4.2 to 9.5 million deaths and 69 to 174 Gt CO2 emissions between 1985 and 2015 (Table 4).

If the cost reduction rates had continued there would be no need for government interventions in markets to incentivise some, and penalise other, technologies. There would be no need for subsidies and incentives for selected technologies, and no need for renewable energy targets.

It's time for the developed countries to lead the world to get serious about nuclear power.  Some of nuclear power’s advantages are, it:

  1. is the safest way to generate electricity and always has been since the first power reactor began supplying power to the grid in 1954 (Appendix B, Note VIII)
  2. is sustainable – nuclear fuel is effectively unlimited
  3. provides reliable, dispatchable electricity
  4. provides countries with a high level of energy security – many years of fuel supply can be stored in a small space at low cost so countries are not vulnerable to disruption of fuel supply during periods of trade or military conflicts
  5. is highly flexible in small modular reactors – consider the flexibility of nuclear powered submarines and ships, as has been demonstrated over the past 60 years; also see Irwin (2017) submission to the Australian Energy Security Board on SMR technologies.
  6. potential for large cost reductions over time, if the impediments to progress are removed – e.g. 25% reduction per doubling of cumulative global capacity of construction.

Other economic benefits and policy implications are presented in Sections 3.5 and 3.6.

A likely-root cause of the disruption, and the cost escalations and stalled deployment rate since about 1967 was, and still is, the activities of the anti-nuclear power protest movement (Appendix B, Note IX ).

To achieve the substantial benefits available by transitioning to nuclear power requires a recognition of the disruption and its consequences, identification of its causes, and amelioration of the impediments that are slowing progress.


Peter A. Lang. Nuclear Power Learning and Deployment Rates; Disruption and Global Benefits Forgone. Energies 2017, 10, 2169.

Tony Irwin, 2017. The Contribution of Nuclear to a Reliable, Affordable and Low Emissions Energy Future for Australia. SMR Nuclear Technology, Submission to the Australian Energy Security Board.


Peter Lang's picture
Thank Peter for the Post!
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 1, 2019

Thanks for the insights Peter. Do you think this is a story more of what could've been, or is nuclear in the coming years salvageable as a signficant source of clean energy? Is the fear too far entrenched, the timing too late?

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on Nov 3, 2019

Matt Chester,

Thank you for your questions. I’d prefer to not answer them on this thread at this stage because they are not in the scope of the paper that the post is about. The paper is a counterfactual analysis of empirical data over the period 1951 to 2015. Your questions require speculating about the future. Discussing the issues might divert discussion from the subject of this post. I feel the answers to your questions would be better done in a separate post.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 4, 2019

Totally understood, thanks Peter!

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