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Nuclear power worries

The Fukushima tragedy in Japan in March 2011 has unsettled the nuclear energy outlook. Nuclear power started out almost 60 years ago with the Obninsk plant near Moscow in 1954, but after strong growth in the 1960s and 1970s, the industry declined sharply in the 1980s due to costs, delays and safety concerns after the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979, and the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine in 1986.

But since the mid-2000s, global nuclear capacity recovered somewhat, reflecting new supply in China, and power uprates and life extensions in some reactors elsewhere. In fact, construction began on 16 new plants in 2010, the largest number since 1980; just one of these was in an OECD country. China accounted for 63% of the construction starts in 2010, followed by Russia, with 13%. In 2010, nuclear power plants supplied 13% of the world’s electricity, down from a peak of 18% in 1996. At the start of 2011, a total of 30 countries around the world operated 441 nuclear reactors. Another 17 countries had announced their intention to build reactors, mainly outside the OECD area.

Now, the Fukushima accident has forced many governments to reassess their plans. The IEA, a sister organisation of the OECD, points out that many governments have reaffirmed their commitment to nuclear energy, but most countries, with nuclear programmes including Japan, France and the US, have launched safety reviews and “stress tests”,  while some, including China and Germany, had temporarily suspended approvals for new projects. In sum, the long-term implications for the sector remain uncertain, the IEA warns.

International Energy Agency (IEA), World Energy Outlook 2011
ISBN: 978 92 64 12413 4

©OECD Observer No 286 Q3 2011

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