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A global nuclear renaissance?

By Madeline Strong Diehl
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Building capacity

After a 30-year hiatus in new construction, a handful of U.S. utility companies are moving forward with plans to join a “nuclear renaissance” that seems to be affecting countries around the globe.  All told, some 40 countries — mainly in the Middle East and Asia — have committed to building their first atomic-power plants, or to adding new ones to their existing nuclear capacity.

Meanwhile, in France — the Western country that has had perhaps the best experience with fission-based nuclear power — a state-controlled company runs the country’s nuclear power plants. Nearly 80 percent of the power is generated by nuclear plants. Recycled nuclear waste provides about 17 percent of the fuel. But the French are discussing phasing out some plants following the Fukushima disaster.

Elsewhere in Europe, there are a total of 185 nuclear power plant units in operation in 16 countries, including five in the Asian region of the Russian Federation, according to data from the European Nuclear Society.

Waste management

Achieving public agreement for how nuclear waste will be disposed is key to the long-term success of any country’s nuclear policy. Finland and Sweden seem to be leading the way in this regard, as communities there have begun the local construction of permanent disposal sites.

Support for nuclear power in Europe is not universal, however. Italians and 10 other European countries, plus Australia and New Zealand, remain adamantly opposed to nuclear power. Nations who use nuclear power, including Switzerland and Germany, are discussing phasing out their plants.

Germany was opposed to nuclear power after large parts of the nation were contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. But by 2011 there were enough nuclear plants in Germany to supply almost 20 percent of its power. After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, however, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reversed course, and now Germany is in the process of shuttering all nuclear plants and fast-tracking renewable energy technology.

Leading the charge

Meanwhile, according to the World Nuclear Association, Asia is the main region in the world where nuclear power is growing significantly. In East and South Asia there are 119 operable nuclear power reactors, 49 under construction, and firm plans to build a further 100. Hundreds more are proposed. The greatest growth in nuclear generation is expected in China, South Korea, and India.

And, perhaps most tellingly, the government of Japan has announced it is preparing to restart some of the country’s 48 commercial nuclear reactors that were closed after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Only two years ago, the former government had announced plans to eliminate nuclear power altogether. Restarting the plants is almost an economic necessity for Japan, a country that has few fossil fuel resources of its own.

One plant is expected to be restarted in the near future, with oversight by a newly reorganized and strengthened safety and operations monitoring agency. It remains to be seen whether or not the reopening will be accompanied by the kinds of public protest that rocked Japan up until recent months.

Madeline Strong Diehl

Madeline Strong Diehl

MADELINE STRONG DIEHL is a freelance writer, editor, and strategic consultant based in Ann Arbor. Her work appears in a number of U-M publications, including Michigan Alumnus, LSA Magazine, and Findings. In addition, she is a teacher and creative writer who recently published a book of poetry. In fall 2013, DiehI was invited by U-M Engineering Professor Emeritus Ron Fleming to teach a mini-writing workshop as part of his NERS 490-2 class, “20th Century History--Development of Nuclear Science.” She would lead discussions based on a series of articles she had written about the moral and ethical decisions scientists faced during WWII. Her mission was to help students better communicate in a world that did not readily embrace nuclear power. And through her encounters with NERS students, many of whom described themselves as "environmentalists," Diehl slowly experienced what she describes as My accidental conversion to nuclear power.