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 which attract partisan views far more strident that any other method of electricity generation.
From its origins in the atomic weapons programme of the World War II nuclear power generation grew, by the beginning of the 1970s, into the great hope for unlimited global power. In 1974, the US power industry alone had ordered 200 nuclear reactors and in 1974 the US Energy Research and Development Administration estimated that US nuclear generating capacity could reach 1200 GW by 2000. (Total US generating capacity in 2002 from all sources was 980 GW.1) The UK, France, Germany and Japan all began 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 conspired to bring the development of nuclear power to a halt in the USA. Similar effects spread to other countries.
There were already environmental and safety concerns during the 1970s but two accidents, one at Three Mile Island in the USA 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, lengthening construction times and increasing costs. By the late 1980s, 100 nuclear projects in the USA had been cancelled. To make matters worse, nuclear waste disposal had became a political issue that could not be resolved. As of 2004, no new nuclear reactor has been ordered in the USA since 1978.
The US still retains a large fleet of nuclear power stations. Some countries in Europe and Scandinavia decided to rule the option out completely. In 1978 Austria voted to ban nuclear power. Sweden voted in 1980 to phase out nuclear power by 2010, although this timetable may yet be abandoned. 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 UK government, too, retains a nuclear option. And in 2003 the Finnish utility Teollisuuden Voima Oy (TVO) ordered a new nuclear unit, the first that will have been under construction in the European Union (EU) for over a decade.
There is also a large fleet of nuclear power plants in Eastern Europe. These plants are all based on Russian-designed reactors. The safety of the
Russian designs has been a matter of concern since the Chernobyl accident in 1986. From the beginning of the 1990s, when cold war barriers fell, efforts have been made to improve the safety of Eastern European reactors or to force their closure. No new plants have been started since then.2
The evolution of nuclear generation in Asia has followed a different course. Japan has continued to develop its installed nuclear base, as has South Korea, though the Japanese nuclear industry began to face considerable public criticism at the end of the twentieth century. Taiwan ordered two new nuclear reactors in 1996; public pressure may make these the last that country builds. India has an indigenous nuclear industry. And in the mid-1990s, China started to develop what promises to be a strong nuclear base. These nations, but primarily China, are keeping the nuclear construction industry afloat.
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