by Srinivas Mazumdaru • published 14 April 2023
The energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine forced Germany last year to extend the life of the last three nuclear power plants in the country by a few months beyond the scheduled phaseout at the end of 2022.
The reactors will finally go offline on Saturday, April 15.
Despite calls for a delay in shutting down the plants, the German government said there’s no turning back and the phaseout “is a done deal.”
There are, however, some countries that continue to put their faith in nuclear energy, or at least view it as a source of carbon-free energy to combat climate change.
There are currently 412 nuclear reactors in operation in 33 countries worldwide, according to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR).
Nuclear power accounted for about 9.8% of global electricity generation in 2021, down from the peak of 17.5% in 1996.
The share of nuclear in the world’s energy mix is now below renewable energy generation. A report released this week by energy think tank Ember stated that wind and solar energy made up a record high 12% of global electricity production last year.
Most nuclear reactors were built between 1968 and 1986, mainly in Europe, the United States, the former Soviet Union, and Japan.
The global average age of these reactors is 31 years.
China is a major player when it comes to the construction and operation of nuclear power plants. The country now operates 57 reactors and 21 more reactors are under construction.
China has by far the youngest large nuclear fleet in the world, with as many as 41 reactors — almost every four in five — having connected to the grid within the past 10 years.
The share of nuclear power in the country’s electricity mix was almost 5% in 2022.
Beijing also has nuclear ambitions abroad, but it has so far only exported reactors to Pakistan. All six units currently being operated in the South Asian country are of Chinese design.
China’s other international projects, including in the UK and Romania, have so far not proceeded to the stage of construction.
China does not have a repository for highly radioactive waste, but it is exploring one in the Gobi Desert. Its nuclear waste is currently stored at various domestic reactor sites.
India currently has 19 nuclear reactors, with a total net generating capacity of 6.3 GW. Eight more reactors, with a combined capacity of 6.0 GW, are under construction. The average age of reactors is around 21 years.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), nuclear power contributed 39.8 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity in 2021, marginally less than 40.4 TWh in 2020. This represents a share of 3.2% of total power generation, compared to 3.3% in 2020.
Nuclear power projects in the country have suffered from significant time and cost overruns, despite ample financial and political support from parties across the spectrum.
The sector has also been plagued by controversies and protests over issues related to land ownership as well as the safety and security of power plants in the event of natural or man-made disasters.
Furthermore, India does not have a final storage facility for highly radioactive nuclear waste.
The war in Ukraine and the ensuing global energy crisis have prompted the Japanese government to reverse the nuclear phase-out policy that was adopted following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.
All of Japan’s nuclear reactors were taken offline after the disaster and the majority remain out of action today.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration is now pushing a plan to maximize the use of nuclear energy, calling for seven reactors approved by Japan’s nuclear safety watchdog to resume operations.
Kishida has also urged the nation to consider building “next-generation” reactors with new safety mechanisms.
Amid the energy crisis, polls show that public views on nuclear power are softening, although mistrust still runs deep among sections of society.
Finland currently operates four nuclear reactors, which supply a third of the nation’s electricity. A fifth reactor is in the implementation phase, according to the Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs.
In recent years, support for nuclear has grown in Finland, spurred by rising concern over climate change.
A poll conducted last year by the Finnish Energy trade association showed 60% of Finns supported nuclear power, a record high.
The Finnish group Fennovoima had worked together with Russia’s Rosatom on a nuclear project but terminated the collaboration in May 2022, citing risks linked to the war in Ukraine.
Compared to many other countries in the world, Finland is a step ahead in nuclear waste management. It is currently constructing a nuclear waste repository deep underground, which is scheduled to be operational by 2025.
France relies on nuclear energy like no other country in the world. It currently operates 56 power plants, which supply about two-thirds of the nation’s electricity demand.
The power plants have an average age of almost 37 years, and the last reactor went online in 1999.
Last year, French authorities had to close several of the nation’s reactors after detecting corrosion problems, sending nuclear power production to a 30-year low.
Notwithstanding the problems, President Emmanuel Macron’s government wants nuclear power production to rise again to between 350 and 380 terawatt hours per year in the coming years. It aims to press ahead with a €52-billion ($57 billion) plan to build six new next-generation EPR2 reactors.
There is no final repository for highly radioactive waste in France.
Poland has been planning to go nuclear since 1980 and started building two reactors, but stopped construction after the Chernobyl reactor disaster of 1986.
After that, there were repeated and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to restart construction. In 2014, the government adopted a plan to build six new reactors, with the first unit scheduled to come online in 2024.
Again in early 2021, the Polish government greenlit plans to construct six reactors in two locations, with the first reactor to begin operation in 2033.
Poland hopes nuclear energy will help the country phase out coal-fired power plants, which currently meet about 70% of Polish electricity needs.
The US currently has the largest nuclear fleet in the world — with 92 commercial reactors.
In 2022, they accounted for about 18.2% of the country’s electricity production, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The share of nuclear in the energy mix has been slipping over the past decade — from about 20% to just over 18% now. After hitting a peak of about 102,000 MW in 2012, US nuclear power generation dropped to 95,492 MW at the end of 2021.
The US also has the oldest large reactor fleet in the world, with an average age of 41.9 years. Most reactors went into operation by 1985. Only one new one is currently under construction.
President Joe Biden, however, has championed nuclear as a source of carbon-free power to combat climate change. His administration last year launched a $6 billion (€5.4 billion) effort to rescue nuclear power plants at risk of closing.