Russian and Chinese designs dominate nuclear reactors, warns IEA chief

February 09, 2023

A visitor (R) learns about huaneng's high-temperature gas-cooled reactor model at the China International Nuclear Power Industry and Equipment Exhibition 2021 in Yantai, Shandong Province, China, Oct. 19, 2021.

Nuclear power could be a dominant player in the next-generation clean energy landscape, but that will require concerted action and focus from governments and private industry that is not happening right now, according to the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA).

In the meantime, Russia and China are dominating the space. Since 2017, 87% of the new reactors which have broken ground use Russian and Chinese designs, IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a statement on Thursday. The IEA is an intergovernmental organization based in Paris, and was launched in 1974 in the wake of the oil crisis.

"Advanced economies have lost market leadership, as 27 out of 31 reactors that started construction since 2017 are Russian or Chinese designs," Birol said.

There's a big opportunity for nuclear power to become a major component of global energy markets as the world wakes up to the effects of climate change, since nuclear power generation does not emit any of the greenhouse gasses that cause global warming. Also, the war in Ukraine has contributed to a run-up in fossil fuel prices, making nuclear power more economically attractive.

"In today's context of the global energy crisis, skyrocketing fossil fuel prices, energy security challenges and ambitious climate commitments, I believe nuclear power has a unique opportunity to stage a comeback," Birol said.

"However, a new era for nuclear power is by no means guaranteed," he added.

Governments need to implement policies to "ensure safe and sustainable operation of nuclear plants for years to come," Birol said, and they will need to invest in new technologies.

He also warned that for advanced economies to catch up with Chinese and Russian nuclear operations, companies have to become better at delivering nuclear construction projects on time and on budget.

"The nuclear industry must quickly address the issues of cost overruns and project delays that have bedevilled the construction of new plants in advanced economies," Birol said.

In the United States, the construction of the third and fourth reactors at the Vogtle plant in Georgia have become a prime example of the inability of the nuclear industry to execute efficiently.

Aging reactors

There are nuclear power reactors in 32 countries, and 63% of the energy generating capacity of that global fleet of nuclear reactors is from plants that are at least three decades old. That's because most of the nuclear power construction was a response to the 1970s oil shocks, according to the IEA.

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