Game Changers for Nuclear Energy

No-Surprise Scenario

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Kate Marvel and Michael M. May
Global Nuclear Future

The expression “no-surprise scenario” is, at some level, inaccurate: most decisions, economic and political, are made under uncertain conditions and with the knowledge that such uncertainty exists. Thus, in many cases (and where possible), uncertainties are hedged. The no-surprise scenario is not a single scenario, but a set of boundaries on what is considered reasonable and to be planned for. Below, we describe what might be considered the generally accepted view of the course of future events, the view that underlies, for instance, the assumptions of national and international government agencies, utilities, and vendors.

The present is an unusually uncertain time for nuclear power for two main reasons. The first relates to economics. To a varying extent, the developed countries in North America and Europe that use or are considering using nuclear power are facing high unemployment along with high public debt. There is little agreement among those countries about how to face these difficulties: their responses involve different mixtures of economic stimulus, austerity measures, and other policy tools. Moreover, there is no assurance that changes in government will not affect those responses.

The second uncertain factor is government action on climate change. If governments at the city, state, or national level impose some form of a price on greenhouse gas emissions, this development will affect the future of nuclear power and that of the other means of providing energy; similarly, “green” subsidies will make some investments more attractive and others less. As of this writing, a climate bill remains stalled in the U.S. Senate, presumed dead. Other major greenhouse gas emitters lack coherent and effective plans to reduce emissions, and despite progress at the Cancun Climate Summit in Winter 2010, no strong international consensus has yet emerged.

Those two uncertainties are already reflected in different ways in some national plans for investing in nuclear energy: for example, China has accelerated its nuclear plans, while the United States has slowed its nuclear development. These differences point to the challenges inherent in defining a single global nuclear future. The current state of the nuclear industry is somewhat fragmented, depending strongly on local political and economic conditions. Most energy forecasts rely on a complicated array of economic, social, environmental, and political factors. Assessing the place of nuclear energy in the future mix brings with it an additional set of complications. Waste, reactor accidents, proliferation and security threats, and changes in public perception are dealt with differently in different regions. A serious accident, while unlikely to bring about a lasting shutdown of the 20 percent of electricity generated by nuclear in the United States, let alone the higher numbers in France, Japan, and South Korea, could prevent or seriously delay expansion. Conversely, accidents are unlikely to impose more than a temporary delay in the plans of China, India, and Russia, where public opinion is not as determinative and the need for electric power growth is greater than in developed countries. A continuing or deepening recession could induce a major downward trend globally by reducing both demand and financing. However, because different regions have weathered the recession with varying degrees of success, the post-financial crisis landscape for nuclear power will likely be regional in character.

However, it is not impossible to talk sensibly about a no-surprise scenario on a global scale. The rapid development of communications technology would surprise even the most prescient observers of the 1970s, and business, politics, and social activism have globalized in ways once unimaginable. The economic, political, and technological aspects of nuclear power have components that do not respect national boundaries. It is therefore useful to consider a global picture, albeit one constructed as a sum of disparate parts from scenarios at the national and regional levels. This piecewise approach can help differentiate those factors that affect nuclear power within the country or region from those that are likely to transcend boundaries. In the following sections, we build the global scenario from its regional components, focusing not on specific projections but on the current conditions that create assumptions used in building models. We do not dispute that other forecasts consider different scenarios, and these may indeed turn out to reflect future reality more accurately than the scenarios discussed below. After all, nearly everything is predicted by someone. In defining the no-surprise scenario, we are not interested in predicting the future with any degree of accuracy, but in collecting the conventional wisdom with respect to the nuclear sector in the regions we consider.

The United States

While the recession slowed investment plans, the medium-term situation in the United States appears relatively favorable to nuclear power. Although the outcome of specific U.S. DOE loan guarantee reviews is uncertain, the DOE has available, as of January 2011, $10.2 billion in guarantee authority.12 The timescale for new reactors could continue to be delayed depending on politics and the length of the current economic downturn: consider, for instance, that demand for electricity in the United States has gone down in the past three years. If the increases in energy demand projected earlier are realized,13 the no-surprise scenario foresees nuclear power persisting at roughly 20 percent of U.S. electric generation. This scenario assumes that the current nuclear generating capacity is extended14 and that currently planned new coal- and gas-fueled generators come online in approximately the current proportions. The United States generates about 30 percent of the world’s nuclear power; given current plans, this share is expected to decrease.

The U.S. situation at the front and back ends of the nuclear fuel cycle is also changing. While the United States was the world’s largest nuclear exporter in the early decades of the nuclear age, there is no longer a purely U.S.owned nuclear reactor exporting company, though there are extensive commercial agreements: for example, between Toshiba, the majority owner of the former U.S. reactor builder Westinghouse, and the Shaw Group, a U.S. engineering and construction firm.15 The United States continues to be active in other areas of the international nuclear market, including with respect to nuclear fuel. AREVA, URENCO, and the U.S. Enrichment Corporation are either building or planning to build new enrichment facilities in the United States. At the back end of the fuel cycle, there is at present no approved final disposal method for civilian nuclear spent fuel in the United States. Yucca Mountain has been closed, and a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future has been appointed to provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to manage the nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.16

A game changer would be an event or trend that either entirely shuts down new nuclear plans or drastically increases the role of nuclear in the U.S. energy mix. For either outcome to materialize, new investments in the tens of billions of dollars over and above what is now planned, whether in alternative generation if nuclear power were to be shut down or in additional nuclear generation if it were to be increased, would have to be made. These investments would be required of the utilities and industry, the universities that educate the kinds of engineers needed, and, directly or indirectly, the government. At present, such excursions are not part of the no-surprise scenario. Rather the U.S. “game” is to extend the lifetime of current reactors as much as possible and, if loan guarantees hold up, to build a few new ones.

Despite current administration and congressional support, and aside from concerns about slowed demand, the domestic U.S. market regarding nuclear power is characterized by extreme caution: nuclear power, as one longtime observer has remarked, is nobody’s favorite—or at least no politician’s or investor’s favorite. Growing concerns about climate change have led influential environmental campaigners to reluctantly support nuclear energy. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, representing the Obama administration’s view and that of a significant group in Congress, has repeatedly said a clean energy standard could include clean coal and nuclear along with renewables.17 Nevertheless, the future of nuclear power remains vulnerable to a serious safety or security incident, particularly if it affects any new facility.


The European nuclear landscape is as diverse as Europe itself. The proportion of electricity generated by nuclear power ranges from none in Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Norway to more than 80 percent in France and close to 100 percent in some small Eastern European countries. The political and economic situations, as well as popular attitudes to nuclear power, differ widely among EU member states. This diversity means that there is no single European no-surprise scenario. However, as with the global scenario, we can construct a picture of the expected European nuclear future as the sum of disparate parts. In the short term, investment and licensing activities indicate that the role of nuclear power is poised to remain roughly constant over the next few decades. In those countries that currently utilize nuclear power, there are no immediate plans for substantially increasing the rate of investment. Countries may, of course, change their future energy policies by eliminating or adopting nuclear power: Germany, Sweden, and Italy have recently reversed course. However, the overall European scenario is unlikely to change by any large percentage.

Several European states have long been major nuclear exporters. France is a large exporter mainly through the AREVA Corporation; Germany and the United Kingdom also participate in exports on their own and via URENCO, a British-Dutch-German jointly owned enrichment facility that provides about a quarter of enrichment services in the world.

Nuclear power provides about a third of total electricity for the European Union, amounting to nearly 30 percent of the world’s nuclear power. Under the no-surprise scenario, this world share is expected to decline. As with the United States, upward departures from this scenario are not now considered likely. The vulnerability of the nuclear power industry to serious incidents varies by country. The same uncertainties that affect the United States—concerns about the length of the current recession, its impact on demand, and the lack of global policy agreement regarding climate change—also affect many European states.


Japan has increased its nuclear power generation, opening eight new plants last year. The contribution of nuclear to total power production is about 30 percent, constituting about 9 percent of total nuclear power generated worldwide. Japan has a complete fuel cycle facility and supporting technology. Japan’s nuclear exports are carried out mainly through two major Japanese-Western owned companies, the General Electric-Hitachi and Toshiba-Westinghouse combines. The country has very recently decided to support nuclear exports more actively than in the past, in particular to India, Vietnam, and, controversially, Middle Eastern countries.

The 30 percent domestic share of total power is slated to increase to 40 percent under present plans. These plans are likely to be carried out in part because the cost of nuclear power is expected to decline in Japan relative to hydrocarbon-fueled power, and in part because an increased competition for those hydrocarbons from developing countries will heighten the strategic value of nuclear electricity. Those factors have in the past overridden shorter-term economic concerns—nuclear investments continued at reduced levels through the long Japanese economic slowdown—and they are likely to continue to do so in the future. In view of the Fukushima accident, however, any prediction about the Japanese nuclear future is more than usually uncertain at this time.

South Korea

Nuclear power provides about 40 percent of South Korea’s electricity, amounting to roughly 6 percent of world nuclear electricity production. This share is slated to increase to 60 percent of South Korea’s electricity generation under the no-surprise scenario. Like Japan, South Korea has a strong nuclear infrastructure and track record, and this projection appears reasonably well assured. Many of the same economic and strategic arguments that apply to Japan also apply to South Korea. There has been little serious political opposition to the program in the last thirty years, and such opposition as exists has been caused by seeming incompetence or carelessness, not by fundamentals. A major factor in South Korea’s plans is positioning the country to become a leader in exporting nuclear technology; to this end, South Korea recently won an order to build four reactors in the United Arab Emirates. South Korea has also shown a strong interest in acquiring enrichment and/or reprocessing facilities. It is currently negotiating on this subject with the United States, whose permission is needed under existing arrangements. South Korea has been less affected by the current economic downturn than most of its fellow advanced economies.


India currently has nineteen nuclear power plants (two of which began commercial operation in 2010) and more than 3 GWe of nuclear capacity under construction. As part of a major development push involving the entire energy sector, India plans nearly to double this nuclear capacity in the next twenty years. Under present plans, this increase will comprise indigenously developed pressurized heavy water reactors; light water reactors from France, Russia, and other suppliers; advanced heavy water reactors based on the thorium cycle; and fast breeder reactors, the first of which is anticipated to come online in 2012. Therefore, the official scenario for India is one of rapid development, but there is considerable uncertainty regarding these ambitious plans. Given four different reactor technologies, a new fuel cycle based on thorium, and an R&D and industrial infrastructure still being developed, many view these government plans as an upper limit for the expansion of the nuclear sector in India. If the plans are realized, India would produce more than 1 percent of the world’s nuclear electricity. India has also continued to grow during the current recession and is increasingly participating in the international nuclear market. The Fukushima disaster has raised India’s concerns about regulatory effectiveness and tsunamis in particular and may result in reform of the regulatory structure.


China’s nuclear power plans are both larger in scope and more assured, based on past performance, than India’s plans. The 12th Five-Year Plan anticipates growth from the present 13 GWe to about 40 GWe (from eleven to twenty-five plants) by 2015,18 and plans thereafter are much more ambitious.19 Financing and approval exist for at least the initial stages of this growth, and the necessary infrastructure is developing and keeping pace with the construction.

Nuclear expansion is part of both a move away from the dominance of coal and an emphasis on strategic industries, which include new energy technologies such as nuclear power, as well as contributing industries such as materials R&D. Nevertheless, the pace of development has raised flags of caution, not least from the State Council Research Office (SCRO), which makes independent policy recommendations to the State Council on strategic matters. “Going too fast could threaten the long-term healthy development of nuclear power,” the SCRO has said.20 The SCRO also noted that introducing a safety culture takes longer than technical training, that China has fewer nuclear regulators per reactor than other countries, and that regulators in China are less well paid than others in the industry.21 In partial response, some Chinese organizations, notably the Guangdong Nuclear Power Corporation, are extending and standardizing the training of nuclear reactor operators.

Because of the ambitious scope of China’s plans (China’s 2030 target of 200 GWe is about half the world’s total nuclear power capacity today), the size of its current effort, and the relative newness of its nuclear industry, it is difficult to call any projection in China’s case a no-surprise scenario: the government scenario itself is surprising, yet no particular deviation from it is any more probable. The scenario represents an upper limit on what could be accomplished. If that ambitious upper limit is approached, China would become the most important global actor in the nuclear power sector.


Russia now generates about 16 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and plans to increase that share to 25 percent in the next two decades, a goal that would require doubling the existing number of reactors. While timescales are uncertain, Russia’s past record, along with the existing infrastructure and financing, makes it likely that those plans will be realized, although perhaps not on the officially declared schedule. If they are, Russia will produce around 10 percent of the world’s nuclear power, a share that will probably decrease in light of India’s and China’s plans.

Russia has a full fuel cycle facility and has been a strong international civilian nuclear supplier. A recent memorandum of understanding between Siemens, the German high-technology industrial supplier, and Rosatom, the state corporation controlling nuclear activities in Russia, could presage a stronger entry into that field.

The Rest of the World

More than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear power is generated in the countries listed above, with the United States, the European Union, and Japan alone accounting for 70 percent of the total. If nuclear energy begins to appear attractive and feasible for many other countries, this picture of dominance could change. Developing countries that have expressed interest in nuclear power include Algeria, Cameroon, Chile, Egypt, Georgia, Ghana, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Mongolia, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam. While these countries are often ignored in discussions of the global nuclear future, the expansion of nuclear power to the developing world has the potential to change drastically the debate surrounding nuclear issues.

It is difficult to make detailed predictions about such a diverse group of countries, but the energy sectors in many developing countries have certain aspects in common. Access to reliable electricity is limited, particularly in rural and impoverished areas. Important sources of energy include hydro power and biomass, both of which have deleterious environmental impacts. Finally, the transmission and distribution infrastructure is weak compared to that in more developed countries, leading to losses of 15 to 30 percent compared with 7 percent reported in OECD countries. These differences mean that efficiency and conservation measures are highly cost-effective investments in developing countries, while at the same time, an ever-increasing demand not present in the West requires the constant introduction of new capacity. Additionally, financial constraints may favor solutions that are inexpensive in the short term even though they may not make the most economic sense in the long term. Given the high up-front cost of nuclear power and often limited grid capacity, the no-surprise scenario vis-à-vis nuclear energy in the developing world will likely involve increased discussion and expressions of interest, with relatively few serious building commitments.

Technology transfer agreements, efficiency improvements, and indigenously developed solutions will all play a part in the future energy mix of the developing world. Nuclear energy may enter the picture for reasons of political prestige or competition, cooperation agreements with regional powers, or a desire to add value to domestic uranium or thorium resources. It may become more attractive if lower-cost suppliers with few political demands enter the market, or by suppliers that offer “cradle to grave” nuclear power programs, thus relieving their customers from concerns over acquiring fresh fuel and disposing of spent fuel. Developing countries that wish to adopt nuclear power could also look to regional leaders for guidance, assistance, or examples of how to develop a program. The nuclear sectors in South America and Africa are dominated by Brazil and Argentina, in the former, and South Africa, in the latter. The decisions of these regional leaders could have ramifications for the energy policies of their regions. It is fair to say that the no-surprise scenario for the developing world is prone to more variations than that in the developed world.

The Global Picture

These regional scenarios, some aspects of which are summarized in Table 1, can be used to assemble a global no-surprise scenario. This projection, based on current investments and the political and economic factors that underlie them, is one of growth by tens of reactors in India, China, and South Korea over the next twenty or thirty years, slower growth in Japan, and replacement, alongside some growth, in the United States and the European Union. However, we note that given the large nuclear power fleet in the United States and EU countries, the replacement market there over the next several decades could be quite large.

Table 1: Generation of Nuclear Electricity, in Terawatt-Hours (TWh), by State or Group of States, in 2009

Entity TWh Generated (2009) No-Surprise Scenario Remarks
United States 800 Replacement, some growth No disposal policy
European Union 850 Replacement, some growth Some states changing policies
Japan 240 Increase from 30% to 40%
South Korea 140 Increase from 40% to 60% Major export program envisaged
China ~70 Rapid rate of increase Triple in 10 to 20 years, export program
India ~13 Rapid but less sure rate of increase Double in 20 to 30 years
Russia 150 May increase to 50% Timescale uncertain
Rest of the World ~350 Uncertain, varied

Source: Table compiled by the authors based on data from various public sources, including the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the International Energy Agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the World Nuclear Association. This table represents the pre-Fukushima no-surprise scenario. Changes to date have been marginal, but more changes may be on the way.

The resulting nuclear picture is one of reawakening from the nearly dormant situation of recent decades, with many new reactors and increased interest in different designs. This should not, however, be confused with the vaunted “nuclear renaissance” predicted by enthusiastic observers. Other sources of electric power generation are slated to grow in tandem with the increase in nuclear (or in the case of renewables, perhaps more quickly). While nuclear generation will increase, the share of total electricity generated by nuclear is not likely, in the no-surprise scenario, to change significantly. In particular, the spectacular growth of nuclear capacity in China must be seen in the context of rapid overall development. Even if China were to attain its mid-century nuclear energy goal, its total electric generating capacity would also grow. As a result, nuclear will be a much larger fraction of the total than the present 1 to 2 percent and coal would come down from roughly 75 percent to 50 percent of the total, which is approximately the present fraction in the United States.

In order to construct an accurate picture of the world landscape, it is important to understand how changes in one region affect others. How do trends catch on? How do technological innovations spread, and how are they adapted for different purposes? What are the effects of policy changes in one country for its neighbors and for the world as a whole? A piecewise approach can emphasize regional trends, but it fails to capture the connections among countries in a globalized world. In searching for game changers, we hope to examine how localized events may propagate and the effects they may have on the global nuclear future. Studying game-changing effects may lead to a positive feedback loop, in which analysis of the event may lead to a more integrated picture of the no-surprise scenario, which may in turn refine the assumptions creating that scenario.


12. Nuclear News, January 2011, 24. This number is slated to increase, but by how much is uncertain in the present U.S. fiscal climate.

13. Stephen Ansolabehere, John Deutch, Michael Driscoll, Paul E. Gray, John P. Holdren, Paul L. Joskow, Richard K. Lester, Ernest J. Moniz, and Neil E. Todreas, The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003).

14. Currently, of the one hundred nuclear power reactors in the United States, sixty have received license renewal extensions into the 2030s and 2040s, and twenty-six more license extensions are under review or expected; see Nuclear News, January 2011, 28.

15. See ibid., 24, for a description of such an arrangement. We note that architectural and engineering services are fundamentally different from reactor development, design, and construction and do not require the same degree of advanced technology.

16. See the statement from Secretary of Energy Steven Chu from January 29, 2010,

17. See, for example, The Huffington Post’s report on Secretary Chu’s recent testimony before Congress, See also the reports on the bipartisan Millennium Energy Summit held December 7, 2010: for example,

18. “China’s 12th Five-Year Plan: How It Actually Works and What’s in Store for the Next Five Years,” a report from APCO Worldwide, December 10, 2010, 6–7, The 12th Five-Year Plan guidelines were published in September 2010, and the plan is slated to come into force in March 2011.

19. According to the World Nuclear Association, “China has 12 nuclear power reactors in operation, 24 under construction, and more about to start construction soon. Additional reactors are planned, including some of the world’s most advanced, to give more than a tenfold increase in nuclear capacity to 80 GWe by 2020, 200 GWe by 2030, and 400 GWe by 2050. China is rapidly becoming self-sufficient in reactor design and construction, as well as other aspects of the fuel cycle”; see “Nuclear Power in China,” on the website of the World Nuclear Association,

20.“Maintain Nuclear Perspective, China Told,” World Nuclear News, January 11, 2011.

21. See the summary at