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Insight : nuclear power

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Nuclear power: solution or problem?

16% of electricity consumption worldwide was supplied by nuclear plants in 2007. That share rose to more than 40% in a group of 9 European countries, reaching 77% in France 439 nuclear reactors with a total capability of 372 MWe supplied 2,608 billion kWh to the grid worldwide. The top 3 producers were USA 807 billion kWh, France 420 billion kWh, and Japan 267 billion kWhThere are currently (June 2008) 439 nuclear plants in operation, feeding 16% of all electricity consumed worldwide (see enlarged Fig. 1 chart). Nine European countries depend on nuclear power for their electricity supply to the extent of something between 42% for Slovenia and 77% for France (see enlarged Fig. 2 chart)

The number of shutdown reactors reaches 119, 70% of which in the USA, United Kingdom, France and Germany. Normally, a plant must shut down on average 39 days every 17 months for refuelling or maintenance. However, long-term shutdown may be dictated by technical, security or political reasons. The normal life cycle of a nuclear reactor is of 40 to 50 years. Half of the current operating plants are more than 24 years old.

After a retreat of more than a decade, the issue of nuclear power is back on the agenda. This is the result of the combined impact of stronger energy demand by the new industrialised countries, the pressure to reduce GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, and the rising prices of oil.

The craving for power is such that the pro-nuclear sectors of the world are urging to almost double the number of currently operable units, to reach a total capability of some 700 GWe (gigawatt or billion watts of electricity output) (see enlarged Fig. 3 chart).

Some WNA (World Nuclear Association) definitions:

Plans to build new nuclear power capacity are led by China with 95620 MWe or 29% capability; USA 41000 MWe or 13%;Russia 39160 MWe or 12%; Japan 18330 MWe or 6%; India 16336 MWe or 5%; Rest of World 115482 MWe or 35% in 2008, 439 nuclear plants are in operation, with a total capacity of 372 GWe; 36 plants are under construction, total capacity  of 30 GWe, 93 plants are planned, total capacity of 101 GWe; 218 plants are proposed, total capacity of 193 GWe

Nuclear capacity has increased by more than 20,000 MW since 2000, mostly thanks to new plants in Far East. Almost two thirds of the total capabilities targeted by the future nuclear plant projects (in construction, planned and proposed) come from 5 countries led by China (see enlarged Fig. 4 chart). This nation has high ambitions, with long term objectives to build a capability eleven fold bigger than the one existing in 2008. The gravity centre of nuclear power appears to shift clearly towards East.

The issue of nuclear power is far from being a clear-cut one. Nuclear proponents promote it as the solution for the world's current energy problems. Sceptics claim that, not only nuclear power is not a solution, but it may turn out to be the source of new problems. Let us briefly review the nuclear pros and cons.

Nuclear supporters say:

These arguments seem rather unconvincing to non-believers. Nuclear power sceptics say:



[Sources of data:

  1. MIT - The Future of Nuclear Power, 2003,
  2. WNA - World Nuclear Association.
  3. IAEA - International Atomic Energy Agency.
  4. Scientific American, special issue on energy, Sept 2006.]





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