The colossal release of energy from nuclear fission was demonstrated by the United States when it used two atomic bombs against Japan in World War II in 1945. The rush to domesticate fission to produce electricity started in the United States, the Soviet Union, and France immediately after the War.1 The first nuclear reactor to produce electricity was the extremely small (0.2 MW) Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR-1) built by Argonne National Laboratory near Arco, Idaho. On December 20, 1951, the EBR-1 generated enough electricity to power four light bulbs.2 The 6 MW Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant in the Soviet Union was the world’s first nuclear power plant to generate electricity for a power grid on June 27, 1954.3
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New nuclear facility construction steadily expanded through the early 1980s by which point nuclear power accounted for about 15 percent of total electricity generation in the world. In countries such France, Belgium, Sweden, Ukraine, and South Korea, among others, nuclear power became a cornerstone of the electric power system.
Rising costs, public opposition, and the disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl combined to turn the tide against nuclear power. The rate of new nuclear facilities connecting to the grid steadily declined through the early 2000s. Since 2010, new facilities have been heavily concentrated in China, India, Russia, and South Korea. According to the Global Energy Monitor (GEM), about 64 gigawatts (GW) of new nuclear generation capacity was in construction as of January 2023.4 China (40%) and India (15%) account for the biggest shares of that construction.
According to GEM, about 177 GW of new nuclear generation capacity has been “announced” as of January 2023. In some countries, the very low greenhouse gas emissions intensity of electricity from nuclear power makes it an attractive option to meet climate action goals. The disruption of natural gas supplies to Europe caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has heightened interest in nuclear power.5
China has the most ambitious plan for new nuclear capacity, but several other countries have also announced some significant plans including Poland, Turkey, and Russia. Of course, an announcement is not the same thing as a connection to the grid. Economic, geopolitical, technological, environmental, and social forces will combine to determine how much new nuclear capacity gets built.
1 Bécoulet, Alain, “The Saga of Nuclear Energy,” The MIT Press Reader, February 17, 2022, https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/the-saga-of-nuclear-energy/
2 EBR-I (Experimental Breeder Reactor-I), Argonne National Laboratory, https://www.ne.anl.gov/About/reactors/frt.shtml
3 International Atomic Energy Agency, “From Obninsk Beyond: Nuclear Power Conference Looks to Future,” June 24, 2004, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/obninsk-beyond-nuclear-power-conference-looks-future
4 Global Energy Monitor, Global Nuclear Power Tracker, January 2023 release, https://globalenergymonitor.org/projects/global-nuclear-power-tracker/
5 Mufson, Steven and Claire Parker, “War in Ukraine generates interest in nuclear energy, despite danger,” Washington Post, April 15, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2022/04/15/nuclear-energy-europe-ukraine-war/