The 2015 Paris climate summit has produced a generally well-received international agreement over how to respond to climate change. While it remains to be seen how effective each country will be in curbing their carbon emissions, energy efficiency and clean power generation were a main focus of the discussions.
Nuclear energy is the most efficient energy source currently commercialized and is vastly cleaner than coal. It is, of course, also very problematic since it may lead to disasters such as the Chernobyl and Fukushima as well as producing highly toxic, long lasting waste products. In this post we explore the current status of nuclear energy and the historical trends of nuclear plant construction.
Nuclear energy currently is not a dominant factor in the world’s energy consumption [see chart above]. Still, the amount generated is significant – today, the world’s nuclear generators produce more electricity than the amount generated by all sources in 1960 (1). Certain regions of the world, however, have an energy distribution pattern much more reliant on nuclear energy; 13 countries (12 of them in Europe) use nuclear energy to supply at least 25% of their electricity needs (2). This imbalance of nuclear energy usage implies the distribution of nuclear plants around the world is not homogenous—most facilities are housed in Europe and the USA. These construction trends reflect in part regional sentiment towards nuclear energy.
To investigate such nuclear energy trends in more detail we created the following world map showing the construction, operation, or shutdown status of nuclear energy facilities since the 1950s. Note that the data used does not show all of the the shutdowns in Japan after the Fukushima incident.
The map reveals enthusiasm about nuclear energy in Eastern US and Western Europe from the early days of nuclear energy in the 1950s to the high point of construction activity in the 1970s. The number of shutdowns in US and Europe increases dramatically in the 1980s especially after the 1986 Chernobyl incident. There have been seven nuclear accidents resulting in casualties but by far the largest was Chernobyl which resulted in 31 direct casualties and thousands of indirect casualties. Following the Chernobyl incident there was a general stagnation in construction activity until India and parts of Eastern Europe begin new constructions in the late 1990s and early 2000s. By this time US and Western Europe mostly stopped construction and began shutting down many plants. For instance, Germany recently announced a plan to close all 17 of its plants by 2022.
Nuclear facility construction is developing rapidly in parts of the world (3).
China began a spree of construction post-2010 mainly to contain their growing pollution problem. China currently has 24 large plants under construction including two plants in Taishan which each contain the worlds largest single-piece electrical generators.
Russia, India, South Korea, and the UAE, among other nations, are also actively building.
Of the 67 nuclear plants currently under construction only 11 are in developed Western nations.
Of the 65,000 total MWe capacity of these 67 plants under construction around 30,000 MWe is from Chinese plants.
Since 2005 there have been 27 plant shutdowns in the US and Europe with a combined capacity of 15,000 MWe. The loss of capacity from these shutdowns is small compared to the increase in capacity from newly constructed plants in China alone.
So although Europe and parts of the US are slowly lowering or modestly retaining their level of reliance on nuclear power many countries are still sustaining growing interest for this energy source with the potential to most dramatically shift the energy efficiency landscape.