The Nuclear Renaissance

(Updated September 2015)

  • Increasing energy demand, plus concerns over climate change and dependence on overseas supplies of fossil fuels are coinciding to make the case for increasing use of nuclear power.
  • China is embarking upon a huge increase in nuclear capacity to 58 GWe by 2020; India's target is to add 20 to 30 new reactors by 2030.
  • Communities in Finland and Sweden have accepted the local construction of permanent disposal sites for nuclear waste.
  • International cooperation and commerce in the field of nuclear science and technology is growing.

Since about 2001 there has been some talk, especially in the West, about an imminent nuclear revival or "renaissance" which implies that the nuclear industry has been dormant or in decline for some time. Whereas this may generally be the case for the Western world, nuclear capacity has been expanding in Eastern Europe and Asia. Globally, the share of nuclear in world electricity has showed slight decline from about 17% to 11.5% since the mid-1980s, though output from nuclear reactors actually increased, albeit not enough to match the growth in global electricity consumption.

Today nuclear energy is firmly on the policy agendas of many countries, with projections for new build similar to or exceeding those of the early years of nuclear power. This signals a revival in support for nuclear power in the West that was diminished by the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and also by nuclear power plant construction cost overruns in the 1970s and 1980s, coupled with years of cheap natural gas.

The March 2011 Fukushima accident set back public perception of nuclear safety, despite there being no deaths or serious radiation exposure from it (while the direct death toll from the tsunami which caused it was some 19,000). Also the advent of shale gas has adversely changed the economics of nuclear power in places such as North America.

Drivers for nuclear expansion today

The first generation of nuclear plants were justified by the need to alleviate urban smog caused by coal-fired power plants. Nuclear was also seen as an economic source of base-load electricity (ie continuous, relaible supply on a large scale) which reduced dependence on overseas imports of fossil fuels. Today's drivers for nuclear build have evolved:

Increasing energy demand

Global population growth in combination with industrial development will lead to a doubling of electricity consumption from 2007 level by 2030. Besides this incremental growth, there will be a need to replace a lot of old generating stock in the USA and the EU over the same period. An increasing shortage of fresh water calls for energy-intensive desalination plants, electric vehicles will increase overnight demand, hence base-load (low cost) proportion of supply, and in the longer term hydrogen production for transport purposes will need large amounts of electricity and/or high temperature heat.

Security of Supply

A re-emerging topic on many political agendas is security of supply, as countries realize how vulnerable they are to interrupted deliveries of oil and gas. The abundance of naturally occurring uranium and the large energy yield from each tonne of it makes nuclear power attractive from an energy security standpoint. A year or two's supply of nuclear fuel is easy to store and relatively inexpensive.

Climate change

Increased awareness of the dangers and possible effects of climate change has led decision makers, media and the public to agree that the use of fossil fuels must be reduced and replaced by low-emission sources of energy. Popular sentiment focuses on renewables, but nuclear power is the only readily-available large-scale alternative to fossil fuels for production of continuous, reliable supply of electricity (ie meeting base-load demand).


Increasing fossil fuel prices have greatly improved the economics of nuclear power for electricity, though this is temporarily countered by low gas prices in the USA. Several studies show that nuclear energy is the most cost-effective of the available base-load technologies, at least when natural gas prices are high. In addition, as carbon emission reductions are encouraged through various forms of government incentives and emission trading schemes, the economic benefits of nuclear power will increase further.

Insurance against future price exposure

A longer-term advantage of uranium over fossil fuels is the low impact that increased fuel prices will have on the final electricity production costs, since a large proportion of those costs is in the capital cost of the plant. This insensitivity to fuel price fluctuations offers a way to stabilize power prices in deregulated markets.

Grid stability

Significant grid stability issues arise with high inputs from intermittent renewable sources, and secure stable supply is enhanced by base-load generation of any kind. However, balancing this technically and economically with subsidised renewables having preferential feed-in access to the grid is a difficult issue.

As the nuclear industry is moving away from small national programmes towards global cooperative schemes, serial production of new plants will drive construction costs down, as is already being shown in China, and further increase the competitiveness of nuclear energy.

An enabling factor is the increasing ability of nuclear reactors to load-follow, adjusting their output according to demand, so that they are less restricted to steady base-load role. However in the short term this is only relevant where nuclear power supplies more than about 60% of the power.

In practice, is a rapid expansion of nuclear power capacity possible?

Most reactors today are built in under five years (first concrete to first power), with four years being state of the art and three years being the aim with modular prefabrication. Several years are required for preliminary approvals before construction.

It is noteworthy that in the 1980s, 218 power reactors started up, an average of one every 17 days. These included 47 in USA, 42 in France and 18 in Japan. The average power was 923.5 MWe. So it is not hard to imagine a similar number being commissioned in a decade after about 2015. But with China and India getting up to speed with nuclear energy and a world energy demand double the 1980 level in 2015, a realistic estimate of what is possible might be the equivalent of one 1000 MWe unit worldwide every five days.

A relevant historical benchmark is that from 1941 to 1945, 18 US shipyards built over 2700 Liberty Ships. These were standardised 10,800 dwt cargo ships of a very basic British design but they became symbolic of US industrial wartime productivity and were vital to the war effort. Average construction time was 42 days in the shipyard, often using prefabricated modules*. In 1943, three were being completed every day. They were 135 metres long and could carry 9100 tonnes of cargo, so comparable in scale if not sophistication to nuclear reactors.

* As a publicity stunt, and using a lot of prefabrication, in 1942 the Robert G. Peary was launched in under five days and ready for sea three days later.

Public acceptance

During the early years of nuclear power, there was a greater tendency amongst the public to respect the decisions of authorities licensing the plants, but this changed for a variety of reasons. No strong increase in nuclear power is possible in any country without the acceptance of communities living next to facilities and the public at large as well as the politicians they elect.

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster marked the nadir of public support for nuclear power. However, this tragedy underscored the reason for high standards of design and construction required in the West. It could never have been licensed outside the Soviet Union, incompetent plant operators exacerbated the problem, and partly through Cold War isolation, there was no real safety culture. The global cooperation in sharing operating experience and best practices in safety culture as a result of the accident has been of benefit worldwide. The nuclear industry’s safety record over the next 25 years helped restore public faith in nuclear power, though the multiple-reactor Fukushima accident in 2011 brought his run of unrivalled safety to an end. Over this period, operating experience tripled, from about 4000 reactor-years to more than 14,500 reactor years (plus a similar total in the nuclear navies). But an objective look at the safety record, despite Fukushima, still shows it very favourably compared with any alternative.

Another factor in public reassurance is the much smaller than anticipated public health effects of the Chernobyl accident. At the time some scientists predicted that tens of thousands would die as a result of the dispersal of radioactive material. In fact, according to the UN's Chernobyl Forum report, as of mid 2005, fewer than 60 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, and further deaths from cancer are uncertain.  The human toll from Fukushima is no deaths from the nuclear accident and no serious radiation effects, but the stress of maintaining the evacuation has been massive, just as it was with Chernobyl.

One of the criticisms often levelled against nuclear power is the alleged lack of strategy and provision for its long-lived wastes. It is argued that local communities would never be prepared to host a repository for such waste. However, experience has shown in Sweden and Finland, that with proper consultation and compensation, mostly in the form of long-term job prospects, communities are quite prepared to host repositories. Indeed in Sweden, two communities were competing to be selected as the site of the final repository. In fact, radioactive wastes, including those from the nuclear industry, are handled and managed responsibly in all countries, and there has never been any harm or hazard to anyone on account of those from nuclear power, nor is any foreseeable.

New nuclear power capacity

With 70 reactors being built around the world today, another 160 or more planned to come online during the next 10 years, and hundreds more further back in the pipeline, the global nuclear industry is clearly going forward strongly. Negative responses to the Fukushima accident, notably in Europe, do not change this overall picture. Countries with established programmes are seeking to replace old reactors as well as expand capacity, and an additional 25 countries are either considering or have already decided to make nuclear energy part of their power generation capacity. However, most (over 80%) of the expansion in this century is likely to be in countries already using nuclear power.

The rest of the Fuel Cycle is following

Two major new Canadian uranium mine projects are coming into production in the next few years, and Australian, Namibian and Kazakh mines are all expanding their operations or building new mines.

Regarding enrichment, efficient centrifuge technology has replaced the older energy-intensive diffusion technique and several plants have been built in France and the USA, along with new equipment coming into use in Russia and China. A new Australian process based on laser excitation has been developed by GE-Hitachi and may be used in the USA in the next few years.

International Cooperation

Many of the issues connected with nuclear power ­ energy security, climate change, nuclear safety and non-proliferation – are global in dimension. Consequently, several initiatives have been taken to promote international cooperation in research and trade.

A major difference from the boom in nuclear power during the 60s and 70s, is that major nuclear industry companies span several countries, giving much enhanced international collaboration. Also, countries with an established nuclear industry can, through formal international collaboration under IAEA auspices, assist developing countries to gain access to advanced technologies, helping them to address poverty without emissions of greenhouse gases.

Both France and Japan have set up joint government-industry schemes to help to set up structures and systems to enable the establishment of civil nuclear programs in countries wanting to develop them, and will draw on those countries' expertise to assist.

Generation IV International Forum (GIF) and and the International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO) are two long-term research projects where leading scientists from a dozen countries join forces in the effort to develop future reactor designs. The former looks at six different types of reactor that will improve plant safety and economics and at the same time reduce proliferation risk. INPRO is focused more on assessment methodology for the needs of developing countries. The Generation IV International Forum (GIF) is a US-led grouping set up in 2001 which has identified six (now seven) reactor concepts for further investigation with a view to commercial deployment by 2030. See Generation IV paper.

There are already examples of the globalization of the nuclear industry. At the commercial level, by the end of 2006 three major Western-Japanese alliances had formed to dominate much of the world reactor supply market:

Several of China's reactors use technology from Canada, Russia, France and USA ­ while China itself assists countries like Pakistan to develop their nuclear programmes.

EU-based Urenco has built a large uranium enrichment plant in the USA to replace obsolete plant there, and Russia is playing a role in supplying enrichment services to the West. In the UK, French, US, Japanese and Chinese interests are providing the main part of 16 GWe of new capacity planned by 2030. Russia is active in building and financing new nuclear power plants in several countries. South Korea is building a $20 billion nuclear power project in UAE. China is building and financing two nuclear plants in Pakistan.

You may also be interested in