Nuclear Dreams, Nuclear Realities

A look a nuclear programs around the world shows where nuclear’s future really lies—and what it will take to make the next generation of plants successful.

For decades now, since 1987, two pressurized water nuclear power plants here on the Cotentin Peninsula, located about 15 miles southwest of the port city of Cherbourg on the English Channel, have produced about 4 percent of France’s electrical power, forming a significant part of a 56-plant network that satisfies 75 percent of all electricity consumption in the world’s seventh largest economy.

These “Generation 2” reactors—identifiable the world over by their round containment domes—share many characteristics, and some of the flaws, common to the hundreds of plants built across the world in the first wave of nuclear plant construction. There have been routine shutdowns for turbine issues, questions about corrosion and tensile steel resilience, and, of course, local backlash at the very real anxiety average people feel living close to these behemoths. Indeed, right now both are offline for maintenance checks amid record heat that has sorely tested France’s electrical grid. But no meltdowns, no serious releases of radioactive gas, no tsunamis. All in all, in the cold calculus of risk and reward, these plants have produced enormous benefit: per capital annual CO2 emissions in France are 1/3 what they are in the United States (4.24 metric tons v metric 14.24 tons per person), largely due to nuclear power’s contribution to the French electricity grid.

The French model of nuclear energy, long cited by advocates of nuclear power as an example of how the atom can be safely harnessed to produce green power at scale with minimal safety issues, stems from a simple decision: build plants based on a proven design, iteratively improved but not radically altered to ensure lessons learned and efficiencies gained are reproduced. It’s the same way Henry Ford once rolled out Model Ts in Detroit.

France’s first nuclear reactor, the Zoe reactor near Paris, became operative in 1947. Like other reactors of that era, Zoe was a research reactor: In effect, a prototype which until its decommissioning in 1976 was meant to define what is possible, and what is not. Based on these learnings, France built several Generation One plants that began contributing electricity to the national grid in the 1950s and 1960s. But its nuclear build-out really took off just after the Arab Oil embargo reminded the world in 1973 of the drawbacks of depending on foreign oil imports. By 1980, the country had embarked on an unprecedented effort to replace all fossil fuel power generation with nuclear. While that particular goal proved too ambitious, the country did build 50 Generation Two plants in the 15 years starting in 1980, most from a common design, making France a net exporter of electricity and the undisputed leader among industrial nations in meeting electrical demand without carbon emissions. This is a distinction France maintained until 2020, when China’s surging nuclear power construction efforts finally overtook it.

When France first opted for nuclear power, climate change science was then still in its infancy, of course, so observers were not focused on the emissions benefits. But they did care about cost and safety. And on that score, France also performed admirably. Since 1947, when post-war statistics first reflected nuclear power’s contribution, French electricity rates have consistently been the lowest in Western Europe. And while by no means accident free (a short timeline of French nuclear mishaps can be found on Reuters), the plants have operated safely enough to keep nuclear power highly popular in France.

The secret to French success, its nuclear engineers say, are common design features across most plants, technical prowess, and an aggressive regulation of a common nuclear custodian: All of France’s 56 active nuclear plants, spread across 20 sites, are operated by EDF, a company which is 85 percent owned by the French state. This has led many, including those who oppose state ownership of key economic assets, to accuse France of papering over problems. There’s also the issue of potential regulatory capture.

But the numbers tell a good story for French nuclear power, and France has doubled down on its success. In 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that the country would construct at least 14 advanced nuclear plants in the next 15 years, with six plants of the new European Pressurized Water 2 (EPR-2) design slated to begin construction in 2025 and start coming online by 2035. This will coincide with the scheduled retirement of many of the Generation Two plants built during the first wave of nuclear construction, some of which have already been extended beyond their planned 40-year life. The new plants would—at least on paper—produce far more electricity than the legacy plants they will ultimately replace.

After decades of pursing a “rinse, wash, repeat” approach to nuclear power, France’s decision to co-develop the Generation Three EPR design with Siemens of Germany, involved significant risk. But leaders of the French nuclear industry, along with their political masters, committed to advancing the power generation capacity of nuclear plants while at the same time adding new, often double- and triple-failsafe backstops that would make these plants even safer than the Generation Two plants, which already performed so well.

France’s Nuclear Drawing Board

In a country like France, where nuclear power has earned a generally positive reputation by following a proven blueprint, the attempt to leap a generation with the EPR design exposed the country’s nuclear engineers to perils their American counterparts know all too well.

In the American system, where nuclear power had its own golden age of construction in the 1970s and 1980s, innovation and variable designs among plants proved a disadvantage, incentivizing the prioritization of cost savings and other commercial concerns over safety. Variable design also stretched thin the U.S. regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), to its intellectual breaking point as it was forced to regulate so many new types of plant and codify the processes that would safeguard them. At Three Mile Island in 1978, one could argue, that breaking point was achieved when a combination of mechanical failure, erroneous sensor readings, and human error caused the reactor core to overheat and release a small amount of radioactive material into the atmosphere before being contained.

For its part, with the introduction of the EPR-2s, France has argued that it can innovate

and then return to its proven “rinse, wash, and repeat” blueprint of success. Not everyone has faith. Since the new plan was announced during the recent French general election campaign in which Macron was seeking reelection, his political opponents pounced. And Greenpeace France, which opposes nuclear power generally, criticized Macron’s faith in the EPR design. It called the new plan “irresponsible” and pointed out that EPR design had become an embarrassment since its launch in the late 1990s.

Greenpeace may be wrong about nuclear power in general, but on the EPR reactor design, it has a point. The problems of the EPR program are well documented. The design, created by a partnership of EDF and Siemens of Germany, was originally meant to be a template for Generation 3 European nuclear plants. France also planned to offer EPR technology as an export in Asia and, indeed, the first EPR plant opened in China in 2019. The first attempt to build one in France, though, has gone badly awry.

Flamanville 3, as plant is known, is located just a few miles south of where some of France’s 1980s vintage reactors continue to churn out reliable, clean power. Under construction since 2006, Flamanville 3 should have gone online in 2012 but has been subject to design, construction, and other delays that have seen its price tag balloon from €3 billion to €12 billion and its completion date extended over a decade to 2023. An EPR reactor under construction in Finland has faced similar problems and, due to open in 2009, only went online in March. Two more EPR plants recently broke ground in 2018 in the United Kingdom at Hinckley Point on the Irish Sea in Somerset, with cost overruns soon following. The completion date for the first of them, 2026, has not yet been officially revised. But news reports say some delay is inevitable.

In an effort to rescue the reputation of EPR plants, the Franco-German design team, consisting of EDF’s nuclear division, Flamatone, and Siemens of Germany, have simplified the design. The new EPR-2 plan commits to what its designers all a “Defense in Depth” approach meant to cast traditional engineering assumptions aside and radically redesign them to “over-engineer” key components. The work is meant to address one of the main causes of pain in the original EPR design: a double containment dome that has proven difficult and terribly expensive to construct. This second dome at Flamanville 3 and other EPR sites contains not only the core but all the steam pipes that cool it, an ambitious step forward from traditional pressurized water reactor designs. Perhaps too ambitious, however, to be commercially viable, as the previously cited cost overruns demonstrate. Instead, the new EPR-2 design will massively strengthen the steam pipes, a proposal known as “break-preclusion” that drew condemnation from anti-nuclear activists and skepticism, at least initially, from the French regulator, ADN. That skepticism led to further redesigns and ultimately ADN’s approval.

To understand the concept of over-engineering, it may be helpful to think of the Brooklyn Bridge, a revolutionary structure when completed in 1883. Its raw beauty and iconic design aside, the reason engineers marvel at the bridge is its ability to bear modern loads. Engineers like John Roebling, who designed the bridge and oversaw much of the construction, had no real idea what kind of stresses the bridge would face over the course of its life. It was setting precedent, not building upon them. As such, the bridge was built as much as 100 times stronger than necessary.

At the most basic level, this is what EPR-2 engineers are committing to, except they are doing it deliberately. The reactor’s coolant lines, which in the United States would be designed to “leak before failing,” instead will be so over-engineered that failure is highly improbably under any conceivable conditions. As one of the main potential causes of a catastrophic reactor failure, this appears to make sense. But that modifier “highly improbable,” will never be enough for some.

Is Nuclear Making a Comeback?

If France’s reputation for nuclear competency has taken a bit of a hit with the latest designs, it remains a leading exporter of nuclear technology and know-how, and it has played a role in the construction of new Generation Three plants in China, India, and Russia, as well as the aforementioned EPR exported plants in China, the United Kingdom, and Finland. France’s struggle to templatize the EPR design, however, has not stopped other nations from launching their own new wave of nuclear plant construction.

Some countries never slowed their pace, of course, including China, India, and Russia. But in the past two years, countries that had either foresworn further nuclear plant construction or seemed unlikely to reengage have reversed themselves, including the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. In announcing plans to build nuclear plants, all these nations have cited climate change as a primary motivation. After decades of dormancy, even the United States has two Generation Three nuclear plants under construction—the Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in Georgia. And more poignantly, Japan has reversed itself and restarted plants shuttered after the Fukushima disaster.

Of course, there are exceptions. Headlines have been dominated of late by Germany’s high-profile decision to retire the last of its once robust network of nuclear power plants by the end of this year, despite the risks that Russia will cut Europe off amid the frictions generated by its marauding of Ukraine. And those closures have already taken their toll in the global data.

Starting in 2014, significantly more nuclear capacity was added each year than subtracted globally, a sign advocates of ultra-low carbon nuclear power generation hailed as evidence that a world facing a global climate crisis was coming to its senses. As Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder, Net Zero evangelist, and nuclear energy entrepreneur told Congress in 2019, nuclear power is the only available solution that avoids the intermittency problems of renewable sources like wind and solar. “Nuclear is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day,” Gates said in testimony.

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As of this writing, the revival that peaked in 2018 is being somewhat reversed, mostly by Germany. In 2021, preliminary figures from the IAEA note the retirement of three-mid-life reactors with good safety records producing 5.1 GW(e) of carbon free energy. But it also recorded the opening of six new reactors accounting for 5.2 GW(e), all of them in Asia, four of them in China. The decision in Berlin to reaffirm the axing of its three remaining plants will paint a similar story by the end of this year.

And yet, in 2020, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s annual report also noted that, in total, for the first time in many years the world generated slightly more from remaining and new nuclear power plants—some 5.5 GW(e) was connected to global grids that year—than the 5.2 GW(e) that had been retired. The slight gain, the IAEA noted, “doesn’t yet constitute a trend,” especially with the figures for 2021 still out. But it was a clear improvement over what has happened over the course of the previous decades; Globally, from a peak of 17.6 percent of global electricity production in 1996, nuclear now stands today at 6 percent of global power production.

And it is not wishful thinking to expect that current trends might see a revival of nuclear power’s fortunes. Last fall, the IAEA raised its “upper case” scenario for global nuclear power production by 2050 significantly, forecasting nuclear may by then be producing as much as 715 GW(e), nearly double today’s total. This will give some succor to those hoping for a nuclear power revival. To be sure, that would still constitute about 12 percent of expected global electrical demand, but an energy revolution has to start somewhere. The questions, of course, are where and how.

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Europe’s Nuclear Prospects

In Europe, the overall prospects for nuclear power are quite good. In early July this year, the European Parliament, normally a left-leaning body and previously quite hostile to nuclear power, voted to designate nuclear and natural gas as sustainable energy sources for the purposes of financial regulations. The Parliament’s action remains controversial in some circles—particularly in doggedly anti-nuclear Germany—yet it reflects a changing perception of the risk calculus surrounding nuclear power and the technology behind it.

In practice, Europe’s move pertains primarily to regulating the financial services sector, and its impact on the nuclear power industry will be primarily in terms of capital. In effect, listed companies involved in the industry will have a lower cost of borrowing as a result, which should incentivize further construction.

Of course, criticisms abound; accusations of “greenwashing” (claiming to be environmentally friendly but doing the opposite) are rife. And with Europe under intense pressure to respond to the threat of a Russian gas shutdown and wean itself from its unwise reliance on Moscow’s whims, the rebranding of nuclear power strikes some as opportunistic, if not downright cynical.

But whatever the reason for re-regulating it now, the fact remains that the new laws are a boon to a zero-carbon nuclear energy future and could portend a new wave of deal-making by nuclear energy companies to export technology to countries where coal and other fossil fuels still represent the main sources of electrical power.

One place they likely will not matter, though, is Germany. It will push nuclear power generation from 12 percent of its needs as recently as 2020 to zero percent next year. When the extent of the risk posed by Russia’s stranglehold on European gas supplies became impossible to ignore last winter, some thought Germany’s new government, led by the SPD Chancellor Olaf Scholz in coalition with the Greens and Liberals, might revisit or at least delay its nuclear plant retirements. But revisiting the nuclear shutdown decision proved too much for a coalition that included the Greens, whose very origins lay in the anti-nuclear campaigning of the late 1970s. It also reflects a genuine and continuing aversion to nuclear power in Germany, where citizens of a certain age remember the radioactive cloud Chernobyl sent over areas of continental Europe in 1986.

Of course, there were reasons beyond Chernobyl that nuclear got a bad name in Germany. The decision to walk away from nuclear power generation also has its roots with the former Social Democratic (SPD) Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the originator of the plan to close all Germany’s nuclear plants. Schroeder followed his political tenure with a decision to become CEO in the 1990s of the company that built the Nord Stream I natural gas pipeline that has ever since tethered Germany and many of its European neighbors to Russian gas supplies. For a few decades, the decision had no particular consequences despite frequent warnings from Washington and from Germany’s eastern NATO allies that Moscow is not to be trusted. They were right, and Schroeder, by the way, is facing charges from Germany’s public prosecutor for complicity in crimes against humanity for his close ties to Putin.

Germany’s ideological flexibility on green energy choices reached new levels of absurdity in early July, when the country chose to restart coal burning power plants rather than delay the nuclear shutdowns.

France, of course, stands to be more a clear winner with the new EU regulations. It continues to outpace global trends, supplying three-quarters of its domestic demand with nuclear power and also exporting electricity to its neighbors. This summer has thrown up two new challenges for French ambitions to lead a nuclear power revival, however: record heat waves effecting the performance of its nuclear plants, and the specter of Ukraine and Russia fighting over the world’s most powerful nuclear power station at Zaporizhzhia in eastern Ukraine. Anti-nucelar activists point to both scenarios as evidence that unpredictable risks will still stalk nuclear technology regardless of how well “lessons learned” from places like Chernobyl and Fukushima are integrated into future designs.

Start with Europe’s heat waves: Because of the record temperatures across the continent, the rivers that often serve as the primary source of coolant for nuclear plants are now so warm (between 28 and 30 degrees Celsius/82 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit) that they cannot safely be used to cool reactors. As a result, four reactors have been shut down until the river water cools. Combined with scheduled maintenance on a half dozen of the country’s 56 nuclear plants, this has brought French nuclear electrical output to a multi-decade low at precisely the wrong moment. Similar shutdowns and power curtailments due to river water temperatures are now in effect at Swedish, Finnish, German, and Swiss plants, and while they will end with the turning of the season, they have raised new challenges for those promoting nuclear power as a reliable technology.

Meanwhile, the situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant in eastern Ukraine is nothing short of extraordinary. Zaporizhzhia is a mammoth nuclear station consisting of six Soviet-designed reactors that produce 15 percent of Ukraine’s electricity. Captured by Russian forces in March, Moscow has turned the grounds into a missile launching platform, presumably to deter the kind of devastating counter-battery strikes that Ukraine has been using to pound Russian logistical and headquarters targets in other regions. The plant continues to operate and there are signs Russia is attempting to disconnect it from the Ukrainian grid and redirect its electrical power into Russia But Ukraine has not completely refrained from targeting missile batteries and other miliary units houses at Zaporizhzhia, raising international coverage of a nuclear meltdown sparked by an errant artillery round. Whatever the inherent dangers, the plant remains very visibly on the front line between two warring states and an object lesson about the limitations of risk planning.

Nuclear Power to the North

Despite such setbacks, the overall trend in Europe is for expansion. Earlier this year, the Netherlands, which had previously planned to phase out its single Generation Two plant when its lifespan expired later in the decade, announced plans to spend €5 billion (about $5.2 billion) to build several nuclear plants which would come online sometime in the mid-2030s. The goal, the Dutch coalition government said in announcing the plan last January, would be to complement wind, solar and other renewables and raise the percentage of Dutch electrical power generated by nuclear higher than the current 3 percent.

France’s example within the EU, even burdened as it is by fits and starts with the new EPR design, nonetheless has won regional converts. Besides the Netherlands, the Swiss, Czechs, and Poles all now have their own robust national programs to expand nuclear capacity in the name of weaning themselves both from carbon fuel and Russia. Meanwhile, Finland and Sweden, in addition to bidding for NATO membership this year, have populations strongly in favor of nuclear energy, both due to its favorable carbon profile and its ability to bolster their energy sovereignty.

Earlier than most, these two Scandinavian nations saw through Moscow’s push to tether Europe to its natural gas reserves. So while in the 1980s, Sweden vowed to phase out nuclear power, which at one time produced nearly 40 percent of domestic electricity, the country changed course in 2009 and plans to build up to 10 small nuclear reactors, the first two just south of Gothenburg on the Baltic Sea at the site of the existing Ringals facility. The first would come online in the early 2030s.

Finland also has remained a constant in nuclear power generation but has struggled with a legacy of Russian nuclear plant design and uranium supplies. Two of its older Russian-designed plants were retrofitted with Western-style containment domes following the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. Today, the Finns produce about 30 percent of their electrical needs with nuclear power and have become known for their skill in retrofitting and upgrading existing plants, which also include Swedish designs and one reactor of the troubled Franco-German EPR design.

And like Sweden, Finland is also studying the idea of smaller “modular” nuclear plants to replace and augment existing capacity. But a more pressing issue involves a plant under construction in Pyhäjoki, which would be the northernmost nuclear plant in Europe if completed. Russia’s atomic agency, Rosatom, owns a 34 percent stake in the plant. In May, Finland cancelled its contract with Rosatom despite the construction being well under way and on target for a 2029 completion. Rosatom has said it will seek its investment back through international arbitration, although its prospects given the tight Western sanctions regime against Russia over its conduct in Ukraine are dim. Finland could likely complete the project with Western assistance, but it is also dependent on Rosatom for uranium to fuel the plants.

In fact, the legacy of Soviet and Russian involvement in nuclear power plants in Eastern and Central Europe has vastly complicated the nuclear energy infrastructure picture. Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy notes that of the 439 nuclear reactors in operation around the world in 2021, 42 are Russian designs, and 15 more, including Finland’s Pyhäjoki, are under construction with Russian technology. Add the 38 active plants within Russia, and this is a considerable footprint.

What’s more, Russia dominates the supply and refining of uranium to fuel these and many more reactors. Columbia reports that Europe gets some 20 percent of its uranium from Russia, and the figure for U.S. nuclear reactors is 16 percent. Another 30 percent of U.S. reactor fuel comes from former Soviet states closely aligned with Moscow, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. And Russian state entities or private firms own 40 percent of global uranium conversion infrastructure and 46 percent of total uranium enrichment capacity, the report says.

In the countries of the former Soviet bloc, the dependency goes deeper than just finding another supplier. There are 18 nuclear power plants in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania calibrated to use the hexagonal fuel elements provided by Rosatom. This has placed the governments of these NATO member states in a difficult position. In May, the Czech Republic in May threw Russian contractors and Rosatom itself out of the bidding process to build a new reactor at Dukovany. In neighboring Hungary, as heavily dependent on Russian energy as any country in Europe, populist President Viktor Orban flirted with blocking nascent talks for Ukraine to join the EU if sanctions were enacted on Russia—something a single member state can do in the EU’s all for one, veto for all system. In the end, Hungary relented, but Orban’s government has decided to go ahead with ongoing construction of two Russian-designed plants with Rosatom’s assistance in the Danube town of Paks.

Even where plants aren’t locked into Russian configurations of fuel, the problem of supply is tough. That’s why, despite relative unity of purpose among Europe, the United States, Japan, and other nations when it comes to punishing Russia over its behavior in Ukraine, no mention of uranium has been made by European or American leaders touting the effectiveness of Ukraine-related sanctions. Belated efforts to jump-start once common uranium mining operations in the United States, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere notwithstanding, this is not a simple as “bringing home” the production of N-95 masks. Uranium mining is often unpopular, and the mines have been long shuttered in communities with very mixed feeling about their revival.

Can Biden Bring Nuclear Back?

In many ways, the nuclear energy picture in the United States looks like a race between those who would revive the industry in order to address climate change and the economic pressures facing the utility companies that operate the aging fleet of mostly Generation Two plants.

Ninety-four nuclear reactors spread among 54 nuclear power plants still operate in the United States, but that figure is shrinking. Nuclear power in GW(e) terms peaked in 2012, but the industry still meets about 20 percent of U.S. electrical needs thanks to refits that increased output in the legacy plants. That figure will begin falling quickly after 2025, as plants dating from the early 1970s reach technical exhaustion and new plants fail to materialize. A well trafficked report from the U.S. Energy Information Agency in 2014 forecast an increase of 4 percent in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions if the current rate of nuclear plant retirements went forward without either plant life extensions or new plants to replace them.

Earlier this year, the administration of President Joe Biden—itself navigating difficult political straits when it comes to its embrace of nuclear power—announced a $6 billion program of financial credits aimed at helping existing nuclear plants extend their lives beyond 2025. The first two plants targeted for such aid were the Palisades plant in Michigan and the Diablo Canyon complex in California, the last operating nuclear facility in that state. Both are Generation Two plants, and were designed in the 1960s and subject to both political opposition and economic headwinds as the price of wind, solar, and geothermal sources has dropped. In May, Entergy Corp., which runs the Palisades complex, announces its decision to decommission the plant this year, citing concerns about the aging plant’s components. The fate of the Diablo Canyon plant, officially due to shut in 2025, remains undecided.

Nuclear energy proponents, however, see hope in the two new Generation Three plants, Vogtle 3 and 4, which are nearing completion in Georgia, as well as the fact that the $1 trillion infrastructure plan that became law last November won bipartisan support despite some $25 billion in funding for nuclear and nuclear-related energy projects, including the $6 billion credits discussed above and $3.2 billion to fund the Advanced Nuclear Demonstration Program meant to create a template for future U.S. nuclear energy expansion.

It had been feared by some that Biden’s fraught relationship with progressives in the Democratic Party might lead such funding to be struck from the final bill, but it wasn’t. And that outcome was a first practical effect of a change in the party’s official stance during the 2020 presidential election year, when the Democratic platform embraced a “‘technology-neutral’ approach to reducing reliance on fossil fuels that included all zero-carbon technologies, including hydroelectric power, geothermal, existing and advanced nuclear, and carbon capture and storage.”

The change of heart creates a genuine way forward in Washington to secure funding for a new round of nuclear construction, which several independent reports, including one from The Breakthrough Institute, suggest could see advanced nuclear power plants (Generation Three and Generation Four) supply as much as 48 percent of U.S. electricity demand by 2050 as the clean energy transition reaches critical mass. The costs involved could amount to as much as $1.1 trillion by mid-century, but then again, that’s not much more than the $779 billion that the U.S. taxpayer would extend to the fossil fuel industry in the form of subsidies and incentives over the same period, given the current rate of $20.5 billion annually.

China As the Next Nuclear Powerhouse

The real growth story for nuclear power, as in so many other realms, lay in Asia. In 2022 so far, the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) reports that 35 civilian nuclear power plants were under construction in Asia during 2022, over twice as many as in Europe, including Russia. The numbers for other continents pale in comparison; just two in North America, both in Georgia; two in South America; three in the Middle East.

Many of the new Asian construction projects involve China, either because the construction is in China or is being conducted with loans and expertise from China. If Chinese President Xi Jinping is to be believed, the 19 currently under way are a down payment on 150 new reactors that are in the planning stages. As Bloomberg noted when China’s nuclear lending program was announced at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last November, it will cost about $440bn through 2060 and aims to replace all of China’s massively dirty coal generation capacity by that year.

China’s plans carry echoes of the Messmer plan, announced by French Prime Minister Pierre Messmer in 1974 in the wake of the first Arab oil embargo, which would have seen France construct 170 reactors by 2000. Such ambitions quickly faded in the face of budget constraints and competing priorities. Nonetheless, China’s plans cannot be so easily dismissed. The country did not complete its first nuclear plant until 1992, and yet it operates 54 today. And being late to the game has not prevented China from overtaking legacy powerhouses in other sectors. During the past 20 years, for instance, it has shot past European and the Japanese economies in terms of GDP; taken the global a lead from Germany, Japan, and the United States in manufacturing; become the leading generator of solar, wind, and hydroelectric power; and now challenges US naval supremacy in the Pacific. Underestimating China is a chump’s game.

But China is not alone in pressing Asia’s forward in the nuclear power sphere. India operates 22 nuclear plants, mostly of Russian design, and has another nine under construction. Pakistan has a new Chinese-designed plant funded by Belt and Road Initiative money under construction to augment its current network of six. Japan, which famously vowed to retire all its nuclear plants after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, still has 33 operable plants and is now planning new construction, too, with plans now calling for nuclear to double its 40 percent share of Japanese electricity production by 2050. Two new operations are currently under construction even as the country continues restarting plants mothballed after the tsunami.

If China has a rival in Asian nuclear power production, though, it is South Korea. With 25 plants in operation and three more under construction, the country recently reversed a pledge to get out of the nuclear power business. It is also exporting its expertise, currently involved in the construction of four nuclear plants in the United Arab Emirates. President Yoon Suk Yeol, elected in May, has promised to make South Korea a “nuclear reactor superpower,” a sensitive topic on a crowded peninsula with a rogue state testing nuclear weapons with some regularity. Yoon has announced plans to extend the operating life of 18 of the 25 existing plants with an eye toward increasing nuclear’s share of electricity generation from 25 percent to 35 percent by 2030. These moves won praise from the Biden administration, which invited South Korea to participate in a US Energy Department project to develop small modular nuclear plants.

Nuclear Dreams and Realities

Beyond Asia, the cost and complexity of nuclear energy has proven a barrier to entry. The World Nuclear Association, a global industry trade group, reports a desire for nuclear power in more than 70 countries—everywhere from war-torn Yemen to lithium rich Chile to Ireland. But even the industry’s mouthpiece admits that “in the foreseeable future – the main growth will come in countries where the technology is already well established.”

Sub-Saharan Africa is a good example. Outside of two Generation Two South African plants that went into service in 1984, at the height of the Apartheid government’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, no other nation in the region operates commercial nuclear plants. South Africa, which like many African countries has faced severe power shortages over the past decade, has issued a request for proposals for future plant construction and has said it will make a decision on resulting bids by 2024.

Both Nigeria and Ghana have likewise announced they will hold similar bidding rounds. But experts believe the most likely source of new plants in Sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa would be China, likely through the kind of Belt-and-Road financing that has built ports, railways and other infrastructure from the Horn of Africa down to the Cape of Good Hope.

That’s not to say nuclear energy isn’t breaking new ground in the rest of the world. First-ever plants are under construction in Bangladesh and Turkey, and a two-reactor Generation Three plant of South Korean design opened in late 2021 in the United Arab Emirates. Contracts for new plants have been signed by Egypt (with Russia) and Poland (with U.S. firms Westinghouse and Bechtel). And a half dozen other nations are reported to be negotiating similar projects, including Jordan, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia.

Nuclear Power in the Climate Change Age

The picture that emerges from a review of global developments is of an industry—and a technology—being granted an eleventh-hour reprieve from whomever or whatever it is that governs us humans. Nuclear energy won’t take over the entire world fast, but it is doggedly marching forward in some places and making incremental gains in others. France, along with the United States, Russia, China, and emerging technology leaders like South Korea, appear determined to export Generation Three technologies that they say will make good on the deferred, decades-old promise of harnessing the atom to produce safe, efficient, carbon-free energy. France’s effort to leap forward with its EPR reactors shows the reality will be more difficult than the rhetoric. So complicated has this leap proven that the French government, 83 percent owner of French nuclear operator EDF, has decided to begin the process of nationalizing it to shield it from the share price hit that every setback to innovation inevitably brings.

Indeed, in a few decades, the question may not be whether a private or public entity should run the show but rather whether mega-plants of the kind being built in Flamanville are the way forward. Generation Four plants will bring new ideas, among them small, modular “micro-plants” based on the reactors that have powered warships since the launch of the USS Nautilus in 1959. Should they take hold, Flamanville 3 and its ilk could be viewed as dinosaurs, less a great leap forward than a still-born third generation that gives way to more radical and sustainable designs.

That nuclear power will remain controversial in many circles is undeniable. Even the most fervent evangelists for nuclear power will not claim to have solved messaging around the public understanding of risk. Accidents that lead to an uncontrolled release of radiation, for instance, or what to do with their deadly byproduct, nuclear waste, are still ever-present in the discourse. Warfare like that in Ukraine which has imperiled an active nuclear power station is yet another. The main defense against charges that nuclear plants are dangerous is in risk calculus: If nuclear plants have, occasionally, threatened to cause widespread contamination and death, those outcomes have largely been avoided to date. And while deaths among nuclear power workers certainly happen, they pale when stood next to the 100,000 deaths annually in the United States alone that the National Academy of Sciences attributes to particulate matter and other pollution related to fossil fuel consumption.

Opponents of nuclear power took heart when Germany refused to buckle to international pressure (and some might add, logic) and extend the life of its nuclear plants rather than address an energy crisis by burning coal. Fervent opposition to nuclear power, intermingled as it is with social activism dating to the 1960s, to anti-nuclear weapons protests and emotional pleas for a return to a simpler, more agrarian way of life, will not be dislodged easily—nor with cold risk assessments, however favorable.

The conclusion of the latest chapter in nuclear power is not written, but the emergence of climate change as an existential concern has changed the game. The pro-nuclear argument has clearly gained. The relevance of nuclear power to the fight against the global climate crisis a major driver of this change, and polls tend to show that inflexible opposition to nuclear power skews older in demographic terms. It may be that the coming generation, with its unbridled faith in everything technological, can live with the atom, too.

But another factor that should not be underestimated is the convenient alignment of enemies that nuclear power creates. Breaking a nation’s dependence on fossil fuel import poses challenges to a democracy, but not body blows. The same cannot be said of the world’s fossil-fueled autocracies. The less natural gas imported to run turbines, the less coal to fuel power generation, the fewer dollars that flow into the Sovereign Wealth Funds of Nigeria’s kleptocracy, the dictators of Angola and Equatorial Guinea, the Gulf monarchies, and, of course, Russia. Calculating risk and reward, in business, in geopolitics, or in life, has spawned a cottage industry of consultants, academic programs and psychologists geared toward getting the balance just right. But adding the potential of nuclear power to lengthen the habitability of planet Earth tips the scales toward a new embrace of the atom. Seen in this larger context, nuclear power, faults and all, appears indispensable as a part of the difficult transition to Net Zero.