Nuclear power has always been controversial, but the debate perhaps has never been so polarized. One camp argues that the planet needs it more than ever and champions the rapid expansion of capacity in countries such as China and India. The other side says now’s the time to get rid of nuclear energy and celebrates the shuttering of reactors in the U.S. and Europe. It’s a collision between concerns over global warming — which give nuclear power appeal as carbon-free energy — and anxieties about safety, which were heightened by three reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima plant in northern Japan after an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Nuclear energy produces about 10% of the world’s electricity, down from a peak of 18% in the mid-1990s. Operating nuclear reactors number 440 today. The 50 or so more under construction would provide the equivalent of 15% of current nuclear capacity, not enough to make up for the 25% set to be shut down in advanced economies by 2025, according to the International Energy Agency. After the Fukushima disaster, which caused one death from radiation exposure and thousands indirectly from the stress of the resulting turmoil, Germany closed its eight oldest reactors and planned to shutter the remaining nine by 2022. In the U.K., where almost a fifth of electricity comes from reactors, about half of current capacity is expected to be retired by 2025, and the government has pared back ambitious plans for new construction. California officials in 2018 became the latest in the U.S. to decide to decommission a plant, approving the closure of the Diablo Canyon facility beginning in 2024. Meanwhile, of the new capacity planned globally, 29% is for China and India, which rely on nuclear energy for 5% and 2% of their electricity, respectively. Choked by air pollution and aiming to become carbon neutral by 2060, China generated 18% more electricity from nuclear energy in 2019 compared with 2018. India aims to boost its capacity more than threefold in 10 years. For its part, Japan shut down all 42 of its commercial reactors within two years of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami because of damage or for checks. In 2015, it began the slow process of restarting the 33 units deemed operable; three were online in late 2020.

Nuclear pioneers after World War II envisioned an abundance of clean energy at low cost. The benefits seemed to outweigh the dangers until reactor accidents released radiation at Three Mile Island in the U.S. in 1979 and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union seven years later. Construction starts slowed after both of those episodes, which means many of the world’s reactors are approaching their original design lifetime, which is usually 40 years. The European Union and the U.S. have the largest fleets. Except for Russia, they also have the oldest, with an average age of 35 and 39 years, respectively. (For China, it’s seven years.) A reactor’s longevity can be extended, but only with significant investment in refurbishment. Growing worries about climate change reignited interest in nuclear power, but Fukushima produced a backlash. At the same time, nuclear power’s economic value has been challenged by reduced prices for oil and natural gas. It’s expected to remain competitive with the small but growing field of renewables for the next two decades. The cost of producing electricity by extending the lifetime of an existing reactor ranges from $40 to $60 per megawatt-hour, versus $50 to build and operate solar and wind facilities, according to the IEA. And nuclear energy doesn’t entail additional costs to rework power grids and build storage facilities for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. 

Opponents of nuclear energy say that Fukushima was only the most recent accident to demonstrate that reactors are too dangerous. They cite the major delays and large cost overruns that have plagued new reactor projects in the U.S. and Europe as well as the expense and environmental risks of disposing of nuclear waste. They advocate developing cleaner and safer forms of energy such as solar and wind power. Nuclear energy’s proponents say accidents like Fukushima are rare, that fossil fuels are responsible for more deaths through coal mine accidents and pollution, and that the smaller, advanced reactors of the future will be even safer. The choice, they argue, isn’t between nuclear energy and renewables but rather between nuclear energy combined with renewables and a climate catastrophe. Low-carbon sources in 2018 accounted for the same share of the electricity supply — 36% — as they did 20 years earlier because, while renewables scaled up, nuclear power scaled down. The need to replace fossil fuels quickly enough to head off extreme global warming, they say, makes nuclear energy no longer an option, but a necessity.

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