World Nuclear Performance Report

Director General's conclusions

In 2021 the world's nuclear reactors bounced back from the economic downturn resulting from the COVID-19 global pandemic and generated 100 TWh more electricity than in 2020.


Every additional megawatt-hour of nuclear generation helps in the fight against climate change and every reactor helps provide secure and reliable electricity.

But nuclear's achievement in 2021 has to be put in the context of the much broader political, environmental and energy challenges facing the world today.

The Russian invasion has brought incredible hardship to the people of Ukraine. In addition to the direct consequences of the war, the broader impacts on global energy supply have been profound.

The fragility of the fossil fuel supply chain has been made plain. Fossil gas prices have sky-rocketed, and with them so have electricity prices.

Worse may be yet to come, as electricity and heating demand is expected to rise later in the year as the Northern Hemisphere moves into winter.

Promises of action and signs of hope at COP26

The COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow saw a renewed global commitment to tackle climate change. More than 100 countries have now set a target to achieve net-zero emissions.

On the floor of the conference hall nuclear delegates, including a fantastic delegation of Nuclear4Climate representatives, sensed that nuclear energy was being embraced as a vital part of climate change action to a much greater extent than only a few years ago.

While I was in Glasgow it seemed that a day didn't go by without a major announcement from one of our member companies, or another government committing to nuclear energy as part of their climate change mitigation strategy.

But the harsh reality is that, despite this enhanced commitment to nuclear and other low-carbon technologies, the growth in energy demand seen as the global economy began to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic was primarily met through an increase in the use of fossil fuels.

A confused response

An apparent revelation for policymakers worldwide has been the realization that decarbonization needs to happen at the same time as we ensure energy independence, reliability and security of supply.

Over the last six months we have seen a series of announcements from governments seeking to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, and gas imports in particular. An accelerated transition away from fossil fuels has prompted a series of commitments aimed at accelerating the deployment of low-carbon technologies, including nuclear energy.

But at the same time those governments face the difficult task of ensuring continued energy supplies in the complex geopolitical here and now. In Germany, Austria, Netherlands and the UK coal power plants on the verge of closure are being brought back online to shore up electricity supplies. And in India and China the pace of new coal power plant construction has picked up again.

Whilst it was hoped that the economic stimulus packages put in place to aid the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic would lead to a clean energy system, we have actually seen a rebound for fossil fuels. And long-term plans for a more secure low-carbon future are having to wait in line behind short-term shifts to any energy form available, clean or dirty.

Nuclear for secure and clean energy

Faced with the current energy crisis and the long-term threat of climate change there is an even-more urgent need to maximize the huge contribution to decarbonization and energy security of nuclear reactors currently operating worldwide.

Many of the closures of nuclear reactors over the last five years have resulted not from technical requirements, but from political decisions or economic pressures. At a time when every kWh of clean secure energy is precious, and extending the operating lives of existing nuclear plants should be incentivized, misguided political dogma is making things worse.

Earlier this year we saw Palisades NPP close down despite securing a licence to operate until 2031 and having the potential to operate for years beyond that.

Germany's three remaining reactors, Emsland, Isar 2 and Neckarwestheim 2 have a combined capacity of 4GWe, perform well, with high capacity factors frequently in excess of 90%, and together avoid the emissions of 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Being barely more than 30 years old, these reactors could supply clean and reliable electricity well into the second half of this century, but will be permanently shutdown at the end of 2022.

In contrast, the Belgian government has approved the extended operation of two reactors, Doel 4 and Tihange 3, although it is to be seen whether this will represent a practical economic proposal.

With an average age of just over 30 years, many of the world's operating reactors have the potential to be in operation far longer than new solar panels and wind turbines coming online this year. It is vital that governments, regulators and industry all take steps to ensure that action is taken to proceed with long-term operation wherever it is feasible to do so. This will reduce reliance on fossil fuels, enhance energy security, and deliver what the IEA has concluded is the lowest cost form of additional clean, low-carbon electricity generation.

Invest in a sustainable, secure and prosperous future

Our existing nuclear fleet can continue to make a massive contribution to energy security and climate change mitigation. But establishing the net-zero economy that will be needed to avoid the worst impacts of global climate change, and that so many governments have set targets to achieve, will require a total transformation of our energy system including a far greater contribution from nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy will play a major role in making possible a net-zero world of abundant energy for everyone. It will generate electricity for both large and small grids, provide district heating and cooling, supply process heat to industry, produce hydrogen, and so much more. As the only energy source that can produce low-carbon electricity and low-carbon heat, it can be a game changer for the deep decarbonization of the entire global economy.

In the last few months we have had announcements from many new and existing nuclear countries, including Argentina, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Egypt, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Ukraine and United Kingdom, setting out their plans for new reactors large and small.

It is essential that these plans are delivered on in full and expanded upon, so the pace and scale of new nuclear construction accelerates worldwide. We need to lay down human, physical, commercial and institutional infrastructures that will allow the global nuclear sector to truly scale up fast to meet the urgent and massive decarbonization needs.

Only if this is achieved will everyone have equitable access to the secure and reliable energy and electricity supplies they need to live well, and be able to preserve an environment fit to live in.

Sama Bilbao y León
Director General
World Nuclear Association

25 July 2022.


You may also be interested in