But it is too early to start celebrating the onset of the nuclear age. The share of nuclear in world power generation has increased but its share in the global primary energy consumption remains modest. And despite renewed enthusiasm, the contribution of nuclear power is likely to remain in line with the trend of the last 50 years.
The Fukushima disaster marked a serious setback for nuclear power. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy (2013), 2012 saw the biggest decline in nuclear energy ever. The share of global nuclear output in primary energy consumption fell to 4.5 per cent, the lowest since 1984.
The German government announced that it would opt out of nuclear altogether by 2022.
In Japan, the near-complete shut-down of 50 nuclear reactors accounted for 82 per cent of lost nuclear production in 2012. Japan dropped from being the sixth largest user of nuclear power (after the US, France, Russia, South Korea and Germany) before the accident, to 18th afterwards.
But in sharp contrast to its predecessor, which even considered phasing out nuclear power by 2040, the current Japanese government of Shinzo Abe has injected some optimism into the nuclear industry.
Japan is finalising a new energy policy which designates atomic power as an important long-term electricity source.
Japan imports around 84 per cent of its energy needs – mostly fossil fuels. And the bill has become increasingly burdensome. In 2012, while the US enjoyed gas prices below US$3/MBTU, Japan was buying LNG for almost US$17/MBTU, as demand increased to replace nuclear power.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the UK government reached an agreement with French EDF to build a new nuclear power plant – Hinkley Point C (HPC) – the first in 20 years. HPC is expected to start production in 2023, providing around seven per cent of the country’s electricity needs. Poland, too, is planning to build its first nuclear power plants, to start operation by 2035.
Currently, the production of nuclear power is concentrated in two countries - the US and France account for around 50 per cent of world production. That is gradually changing as more countries add nuclear power to their energy mix. In 2013, there were 31 countries producing nuclear energy compared with 15 in 1973. Globally, more than 66 new power plants are expected to be built or are under construction.
The share of nuclear in world power generation increased from 3.3 per cent to 11.7 per cent between 1973 and 2011. The contribution of nuclear energy, however, is limited to the electricity sector. The US, which is the largest producer of nuclear power, generates around 19.7 per cent of its electricity from nuclear, which in turn constitutes just over eight per cent of the total primary mix. Public acceptance has been one of the main handicaps to the expansion of nuclear energy. While large-scale nuclear accidents are few, they are not easily forgotten.
The other deterrent is a web of strict and detailed regulations which increase the uncertainty of projects as they result in higher costs, delay construction, and can even lead to cancellation.
Nuclear energy competes with all other sources of energy – both fossil fuels (mainly coal and gas, and less so oil), and renewables (hydro, solar, wind and geothermal) in power generation.
Fossil fuels continue to dominate the power sector, with a total share of 68 per cent.
The shale revolution has encouraged power plants in the US to shift from coal to gas, which has become cheap and plentiful, while the opposite happened in Europe because of the availability of cheap coal.
Renewable sources of energy are also rapidly gaining popularity. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA, 2013), between 2008 and 2013, half the world's added electrical generating capacity has been renewable. Three of the world’s four largest economies (Germany, Japan, China), are running their economies with a higher share of renewables than of nuclear. This trend is likely to continue.
The nuclear debate seems to go through the same cycle: from pro-nuclear to anti-nuclear then back to pro and so on, thereby restricting the contribution that nuclear can make to world energy.
By Guylain Gustave Moke