Images conjured by the mere mention of the term “nuclear energy” are almost always negative. From Chernobyl to Fukushima, the power source has a historically bad reputation and the stigma of catastrophe. Winston Churchill knew those that failed to learn from history were doomed to repeat it, and perhaps it is lessons learned that have so many countries once again casting a keen eye over conventional nuclear energy as a potential key player in the low-carbon future.
For the first time in more than a decade, most Japanese are in support of restarting idled nuclear facilities, according to a poll conducted by Nikkei. Rising power prices and the potential for electricity shortages in Tokyo are said to have swayed many back to being in favor of nuclear power just 10 years after the Fukushima disaster. The poll found 53% of respondents in favor of restarting the reactors if safety could be assured, while 38% said they should remain shut.
With Russia continuing its invasion into neighboring Ukraine, many European countries are looking to rid themselves of dependence on Russian natural gas imports. Many have grown so dependent they cannot fully shut the stream off for fear of economic collapse, however several are attempting to rework their own energy policies and favoring nuclear as a solution. Both France and the UK have reversed course on nuclear in recent months. Just ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a nuclear renaissance in his country after earlier vowing to cut its reliance on nuclear power. The UK, which gets 15% of its electricity from nuclear power, had vowed to shutter all but one of its plants ahead of the Russian invasion. More recently, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is favoring the construction of new plants and boosting Britain’s electrical generation from nuclear to 25%.
As for the US, at the end of 2021 there were 55 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 93 nuclear power reactors in 28 states. The newest nuclear plant to enter service in the US was Watts Bar Unit 2, which began commercial operations in 2016. Two new nuclear reactors are actively under construction: Georgia Power’s Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in Waynesboro, Georgia.
A recent Pew survey found that while a majority of Americans (69%) favor the US taking steps to become carbon neutral by 2050, only around a third of US adults (35%) say the federal government should encourage the production of nuclear power, while about a quarter (26%) say the government should discourage it (Fig. 1). This survey was fielded before the Russian invasion and the renewed discussions about nuclear power it has prompted.
According to the US Energy Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy, nuclear power currently provides 52% of the US’s carbon-free electricity, and the Biden administration has identified the current fleet of 93 reactors as a vital resource to achieve net-zero emissions economywide by 2050.