Nuclear power is the use of sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and electricity. Nuclear power plants provide about 6% of the world’s energy and 13–14% of the world’s electricity, with the U.S., France, and Japan together accounting for about 50% of nuclear generated electricity. In 2007, the IAEA reported there were 439 nuclear power reactors in operation in the world, operating in 31 countries. Also, more than 150 naval vessels using nuclear propulsion have been built.
There is an ongoing debate about the use of nuclear energy. Proponents, such as the World Nuclear Association and IAEA, contend that nuclear power is a sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions. Opponents, such as Greenpeace International and NIRS, believe that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment.
Nuclear power plant accidents include the Chernobyl disaster (1986), Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011), and the Three Mile Island accident (1979). There have also been some nuclear-powered submarine mishaps. However, the safety record of nuclear power is good when compared with many other energy technologies. Research into safety improvements is continuing and nuclear fusion may be used in the future.
China has 25 nuclear power reactors under construction, with plans to build many more, while in the US the licenses of almost half its reactors have been extended to 60 years, and plans to build another dozen are under serious consideration. However, Japan’s 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster prompted a rethink of nuclear energy policy in many countries. Germany decided to close all its reactors by 2022, and Italy has banned nuclear power. Following Fukushima, the International Energy Agency halved its estimate of additional nuclear generating capacity to be built by 2035.
The nuclear power debate is about the controversy which has surrounded the deployment and use of nuclear fission reactors to generate electricity from nuclear fuel for civilian purposes. The debate about nuclear power peaked during the 1970s and 1980s, when it “reached an intensity unprecedented in the history of technology controversies”, in some countries.
Proponents of nuclear energy contend that nuclear power is a sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions and increases energy security by decreasing dependence on imported energy sources. Proponents claim that nuclear power produces virtually no conventional air pollution, such as greenhouse gases and smog, in contrast to the chief viable alternative of fossil fuel. Nuclear power can produce base-load power unlike many renewables which are intermittent energy sources lacking large-scale and cheap ways of storing energy. M. King Hubbert saw oil as a resource that would run out, and believed uranium had much more promise as an energy source. Proponents claim that the risks of storing waste are small and can be further reduced by using the latest technology in newer reactors, and the operational safety record in the Western world is excellent when compared to the other major kinds of power plants.
Opponents believe that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment. These threats include the problems of processing, transport and storage of radioactive nuclear waste, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation and terrorism, as well as health risks and environmental damage from uranium mining. They also contend that reactors themselves are enormously complex machines where many things can and do go wrong; and there have been serious nuclear accidents. Critics do not believe that the risks of using nuclear fission as a power source can be fully offset through the development of new technology. They also argue that when all the energy-intensive stages of the nuclear fuel chain are considered, from uranium mining to nuclear decommissioning, nuclear power is neither a low-carbon nor an economical electricity source.
Arguments of economics and safety are used by both sides of the debate.