Nuclear power is the most controversial of all the forms of power generation. To evaluate its significance involves weighing political, strategic, environmental, economic, and emotional factors that attract partisan views far more strident that any other method of electricity generation.
There are two ways of generating energy from nuclear reactions: nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. Both have their roots in the atomic weapons pro- grams of World War II, but only nuclear fission has developed to be capable of commercial deployment in power plants and it is this form that has the highest profile. Commercial power generation based on fusion remains at least 20 years away.
Fission was at the heart of the first atom bomb, and work on the development of nuclear fission as a source of electricity gathered momentum during the late 1940s in both the United States and Russia. It was in the United States that an experimental breeder reactor at the Argonne National Laboratory, which started operating in 1951, first produced a small amount of electricity. Meanwhile, in Russia a water-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor called AM-1 was the first nuclear generating plant. It had a capacity of 5 MW when it began operation in 1954. In 1956 two 65 MW dual-purpose reactors started at Calder Hall in Cumbria, U.K., and in 1957 the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission built the 60 MW Shippingport pressurized water reactor, the first demonstration for a commercial nuclear reactor. Russian development of commercial power plants lagged behind that of the United States and it was not until 1964 that the first 210 MW plant at Novovoronezh entered service.
From these beginnings, nuclear power grew rapidly so that by the beginning of the 1970s it had blossomed into the great hope for unlimited global power. In 1974, the U.S. power industry alone had ordered 200 nuclear reactors, and in the same year the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration estimated that U.S. nuclear-generating capacity could reach 1200 GW by 2000. (In fact, total U.S. generating capacity in 2000 from all sources was less than 1000 GW.1) The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Soviet Union, and Japan had all begun to build up substantial nuclear-generating capacities too
But even as orders were being placed, the nuclear industry was reaching a watershed. A combination of economic, regulatory, and environmental factors were about to conspire to bring the development of nuclear power to a halt in the United States and across most of the developed world. There were already environmental and safety concerns during the 1970s, but two accidents—one at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979 and a second at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986—turned public opinion strongly against nuclear power. In response new safety regulations were introduced in the United States, length- ening construction times and increasing costs. As a consequence of this, and of government decisions elsewhere, nuclear construction across the world almost came to a standstill. By the late 1980s, a 100 nuclear projects in the United States had been canceled. To make matters worse the question of how to dispose of nuclear waste became a political issue.
The United States still retains a large fleet of nuclear power stations that it continues to operate, and work has recently started on new reactors after a hiatus of many years. However, some countries in Europe and Scandinavia decided to rule out the nuclear option completely. In 1978 Austria voted to ban nuclear power. Sweden voted in 1980 to phase out nuclear power by 2010, although this policy was repealed in 2010. Italy closed its last reactors in 1990. Germany reached an agreement with its nuclear power producers in 2000 to phase out its nuclear stations. Other western countries such as France, Belgium, and Finland remain positive about nuclear generation. The U.K. government, too, retains a nuclear option. And in 2003 the Finnish utility TVO ordered a new nuclear unit, the first to be built in the EU for over a decade.
There remained a large fleet of nuclear power plants in eastern Europe too. These plants are all based on Russian-designed reactors. The safety of the Russian designs was a matter of concern after the Chernobyl accident in 1986, and from the beginning of the 1990s, when Cold War barriers fell, efforts were made to improve the safety of eastern European reactors or to force their closure.
The evolution of nuclear generation in Asia followed a different course. Japan continued to develop its installed nuclear base, as did South Korea, though the Japanese nuclear industry began to face considerable public criti- cism at the end of the 20th century. Taiwan ordered two new nuclear reactors in 1996 but these had still not been completed at the end of 2012, and they are a source of controversy in the county. India has an indigenous nuclear industry. And in the mid-1990s, China started to develop what has now become a strong nuclear base.
By the end of the first decade of the 21st century there was hope within the nuclear industry that it was about to see a renaissance in the west too. New, safer plants had been developed and several western nations were considering new projects. However in March 2011, the nuclear industry was rocked by a further disaster when an earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan had a devastating impact on the four reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on the Japanese coast. The tsunami damaged the cooling systems of three reactors, and over a three-day period their cores largely melted, releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere.
This new nuclear disaster has led to more questioning of nuclear power and the hoped-for renaissance may have been stopped before it started. Japan’s pol- iticians are now grappling with the legacy and with its implication for the coun- try’s remaining nuclear plants. As a result of this accident, the German government has advanced the shutdown of all its nuclear power plants and closed all those that began operating before 1980. The remainder will now be finally retired by 2022 instead of 2036. The Chinese government halted nuclear power plant construction and placed a moratorium on the approval of new nuclear projects, although that was lifted in late 2012. The impact else- where is yet to be clear but French and U.K. national programs could face a more difficult future too.
While nuclear fission reactors continue to excite controversy and debate, some technologists see nuclear fusion as the safer long-term alternative. Nuclear fusion, the basis for the hydrogen bomb, has yet to develop to the stage when it can be used to generate electrical power. However, fission scientists and technologists continue to make advances. Fusion is inherently safer than fission but it remains a nuclear technology, and if it ever does establish itself as commercially viable, then it will have to prove itself against the background of the nuclear fission industry.