Where Does Nuclear Power Stand After Fukushima?

After each nuclear accident, nuclear power's future is called into question and new projects are generally put on hold for a more or less lengthy period. Five years after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, nuclear power seems to be back on the rise. But the industry, which experienced heady growth in the 1970s, has advanced at a slow pace over the past 40 years.

A cargo ship delivers MOX fuel to the Takahama nuclear power plant in Japan, which started back up two years after the March 2011 Fukushima accident. ©SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP

Returning to Pre-Fukushima Levels

Worldwide nuclear capacity has returned to the levels seen before the March 2011 Fukushima disaster, and even exceeded them. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)The IAEA was set up in 1957 within the United Nations family. It works for the safe, secure and peaceful uses of nuclear energy...1, 450 nuclear reactors were in operation around the world in early November 2016 (note: there is some uncertainty about the future of certain reactors). ElectricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... supplied should reach the levels achieved in 2000-2010, i.e., between 2,500 and 2,600 TWh, after falling to 2,350 TWh in 2012.

While the Fukushima accident did indeed lead to a slowdown in development that has since rebounded, the number of reactors in operation has been relatively stable over the past 30 years. In nuclear powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output..., as in other types of energy, time is measured in decades. A nuclear power plant's life cycle spans almost a century: 10 years for construction, 50 to 60 years of operation and 30 years for dismantling. Nuclear power took off in the early 1970s during the first oil crisis. The global installed base expanded to more than 400 reactors in 1987, the year before the Chernobyl disaster. Since then, the number has hovered between 400 and 450, reflecting the balance of new and closed reactors, indecision on the part of governments and utilities, financing difficulties and changing public opinion. The nuclear renaissance anticipated by many starting in 2004 did not materialize due to the financial and economic crises of 2007-2008, even before the impact of Fukushima.

13%: The proportion of nuclear power in the global electricity mix

Outlook for the Years Ahead

According to the IAEA, 60 reactors were under construction in November 2016. Some statistics mention 160 "projects" at widely varying stages of development.

Aside from issues of public acceptance, nuclear power is hampered by competition from natural gas and coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from..., which are both still less expensive to use, and by an aging installed base. More than half of the reactors worldwide are over 30 years old, with an intended operating life of 40 to 60 years. Building new reactors or extending the lifetime of existing units through costly renovations will put a heavy financial burden on investors.

On the other hand, the international community's growing concern over the risks of climate change could benefit nuclear power, which although not a renewable, is a low-carbon energy with minimal CO2See Carbon Dioxid emissions in operation.

Shifting Eastward

Today, the three leading countries for civilian nuclear power in terms of installed capacityThe power generation capacity of a particular plant. It is usually expressed in megawatts (or sometimes even gigawatts)... are the United States, France and Japan. Together, they account for around 200 reactors out of the 450 currently in operation. Next come China and India. But while number of reactors is an interesting statistic, the proportion of nuclear energyEnergy produced in nuclear power plants. The enormous amount of heat released during fission of uranium atom nuclei is transferred to water... in each country's energy mixThe range of energy sources of a region. gives a more meaningful picture. To give a few examples, the proportion is 75% in France, more than 33% in Belgium, Hungary, Sweden, South Korea and Ukraine, more than 25% in Finland, around 20% in the United States and just 3% in China.

As for the 60 reactors under construction, more than half are located in China, Russia and India. The United Arab Emirates and the United States are building four each, and South Korea, already a major player, is pursuing its efforts.

Clearly, the focus is shifting to some extent from the developed countries of the OECDFounded in 1960, the OECD promotes policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world... to the emerging economies of Asia and Russia. This trend is also reflected in the arrival of Chinese, Russian and South Korean manufacturers in the international marketplace, as they are the only ones with the financial wherewithal to provide Build-Own-Operate (BOO) or Build-Own-Operate-Transfer (BOOT)-type packages.

The United States, France and Japan are the historical markets for nuclear power, but China, Russia and India are now driving the industry's growth.

Selected Projects Under Way2

United Kingdom: With the UK's 14 Advanced Gas Reactors (AGRs) coming to the end of their theoretical lifespan before 2025, the government has launched a program to renew the installed base. Two EPR (Evolutionary Power Reactor) reactors are planned at Hinkley Point, to be built and operated by EDF Energy in partnership with China's CGN. Other projects involving France's Engie, Japan's Toshiba and South Korea's KEPCO are under discussion and at a much less advanced stage.

China: 36 nuclear reactors are already in operation, 20 are under construction and several dozen others are in the project phase. China's nuclear power giants, CGN and CNNC, which benefited in particular from transfers of French and American technology, have big ambitions both at home and abroad. So far, the only project outside China is in Pakistan.

South Korea: With 25 reactors in operation and three under construction, the country intends to double its installed base by 2035. South Korea is very active internationally, notably in the United Arab Emirates.

Russia: Russia has an installed base of 36 reactors and has become one of the most aggressive exporters of nuclear technology beyond the satellites of the former Soviet Union. For the moment, its main markets are India, China and Turkey. More or less credible potential customers include Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bangladesh, South Africa and Brazil.

Poland: The country, which depends heavily on domestic coal, is planning to build one or two nuclear power plants but has not yet selected the construction firm.

Finland: France-based Areva has been building the third reactor at the Olkiluoto power plant since 2005. The project has been dogged by delays and cost overruns. Russia's Rosatom will build a sixth nuclear power plant and has taken a sizable stake in the project.

Turkey: The country plans to build several nuclear power plants with Rosatom (Russia), Engie and Areva (France) and MHI (Japan).

India: In all, 22 nuclear reactors are in operation and five more are under construction. India has 18 reactors in the project stage.

Persian Gulf: With an eye on preserving their oil and gas reserves, the nations in the Persian Gulf are taking an interest in nuclear power. Saudi Arabia is in discussions with Russia and France concerning a program announced as "ambitious". The United Arab Emirates has started building four plants with South Korean partner KEPCO. Iran has operated a VVER (Vodo-Vodianoï Energuetitcheski Reaktor) 1000 built by Russia's Rosatom at the Bouchehr site since 2011. Work began on a pair of similar reactors in September 2016.

Africa: South Africa operates the continent's only nuclear power plant, which was built with France's Areva. Two new reactors are planned as from 2025, notably with Russia. Egypt makes regular announcements about a program, but nothing has materialized yet.

United States: A total of 99 reactors are in operation, of which two-thirds have an approved lifetime of 60 years. A reactor for which the worksite had been halted has just been brought on stream and four Westinghouse AP1000-type reactors are under construction. The United States, like many other countries, is interested in Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).

Brazil: The country, which already has two nuclear reactors in operation, intends to resume and complete construction on a third and build four to eight new reactors by 2030.

Japan: The government temporarily shut down the country's 54 nuclear reactors after the Fukushima accident, but Japan is not withdrawing from nuclear energy. To date, five units have received authorizations to start up again, and the number could rise to ten by end-2017.

Italy decided to pull out of nuclear power in 1987, and Belgium could close its seven reactors by 2025. Immediately after the Fukushima accident, the German government decided to completely phase out nuclear power by 2022. Switzerland, on the other hand, rejected an accelerated withdrawal timetable in a referendum late last November.

In addition to the above, there are around 280 research reactors in operation in 56 countries, some of which are used to produce medical isotopes for radio diagnostic procedures and radiotherapy. Lastly, 220 mostly military vessels (submarines, aircraft carriers and ships) are nuclear powered, as are five icebreakers (two more are under construction).