Global Energy Review 2020

The impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on global energy demand and CO2 emissions
GER2020 Abstract cover

Nuclear

Nuclear power has not been immune to the impacts of the Covid‑19 crisis, though in most cases reactors have continued to produce electricity. Global nuclear power generation fell by about 3% in Q1 2020 compared with Q1 2019, pulled down by electricity demand reductions. In our estimate for 2020, nuclear power declines by 2.5% from 2019 due to lower demand and delays for planned maintenance and construction of several projects. If the recovery from the crisis is faster, electricity demand would be higher and some new reactors would be completed in 2020, leading to a reduction in nuclear power in 2020 of just over 1%.

In Q1 2020, most of the reductions in nuclear power were caused by lower electricity demand, alongside planned permanent closures of nuclear facilities. Since Q1 2019, six new reactors have come online globally, with a total power capacity of 5.5 GW, but this was only equivalent to half of the nuclear capacity that was permanently shut down over the same period.

Nuclear power output change year-on-year in leading markets, 2020 Q1 and estimates

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The European Union had the largest reduction in Q1 2020. Lower demand led to nuclear output reductions in several countries, most notably France, where nuclear power generation was down by 11 TWh (10%) in Q1 2020. Beyond adjustments to planned maintenance, several additional reactors were taken offline as demand fell. Closures of nuclear power plants also led to reductions. Nuclear power has also been an important source of power system flexibility in Europe, helping to maintain electricity security by operating in a load-following mode in several countries including France, Germany, Belgium, the Slovak Republic and Sweden. In Germany output fell by 3 TWh, or 17%, as steps are taken towards a complete nuclear power phase out by the end of 2022. In the United States, nuclear output in Q1 2020 was down 4 TWh, or 2%, due in part to lower electricity demand linked to mild weather.

China was one of the few regions with nuclear power growth, with a 1% increase in output between Q1 2019 and Q1 2020. A pair of large nuclear reactors came online in China in June 2019. Operations at these additional facilities more than compensated for the impact of depressed electricity demand.

In our estimate for 2020, lockdowns would reduce global nuclear power output by 3% from 2019 levels, less than the impact on total electricity demand. However, this decline would be the largest not associated with a natural disaster, and 40% as large as the reduction in 2011 following the accident at Fukushima Daiichi. Depressed electricity demand will continue throughout 2020, drawing less on nuclear power along with all other dispatchable sources of electricity. The Covid‑19 lockdown measures have also slowed nuclear power construction activity. The completion of several projects is likely to be pushed by a few months to 2021, including two reactors in China and one in Finland, where a delay has already been announced. Other construction delays are likely for projects in France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Some refuelling outages have been postponed to 2021 as well, particularly in countries with large nuclear fleets such as France.

A faster recovery would help nuclear power output in 2020 to decline by just over 1% compared with the 2019 total, as reactors that are in service could operate at higher load factors to meet the rebound in electricity demand. A return to construction activities could bring reactors online in late 2020 in China. In any case, 2020 is likely to see a modest number of new reactors completed, falling well below the recent high-water mark of 11 GW completed in 2018. At the same time, a slower recovery than envisioned would lead to lower electricity demand and further reduce nuclear power output (beyond a 2.5% decline) in 2020.