Visualizing Global Atomic Power

Michelle Heath
Visualizing Global Atomic Power

How nuclear power works

Nuclear energy originates from a process called fission, the splitting of atoms. This process generates heat to produce steam which spins a turbine generator to produce electricity.  

As this process does not involve the burning of fuel, greenhouse gas emissions are not produced.

As of August 2020, globally 441 operable reactors had a total capacity of 391.7 gigawatts of electric power. Another 54 reactors are being constructed in 16 countries, notably China, India, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

More than two-thirds of the operable nuclear reactors at the end of 2019 were the pressurized water reactor (PWR) type. Six new reactors were connected to the grid in 2019.  Four were pressurized water reactors (PWR), two in China, one in South Korea and one in Russia. 

High capital costs, licensing, and regulatory approvals coupled with long lead times (median construction time for reactors in 2019 was 117 months) have been deterrents to the building of nuclear power plants along with public perception. 

The decline in costs of alternatives like solar and wind are competitive constraints. Compared to other energy sources, the levelized cost of nuclear power is relatively high, ranging from $112/MWh to $183/MWh.

Nuclear Power Around the World

Nuclear power is the largest source of clean power in the United States, generating more than 800 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year. But challenging market conditions, regulatory and political considerations in the United States have resulted in reactor closures (from 110 to 94), a phenomenon also experienced in Europe.

The state of global nuclear energy is complex and multifaceted, with a range of factors influencing its development and deployment around the world. Here are some key points:

  • Nuclear energy is still a significant source of power globally. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there were 443 operational nuclear reactors in 2021, with a total capacity of 396.7 GW.
  • However, the nuclear energy industry has faced challenges in recent years. Following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, many countries reassessed their nuclear power programs, with some deciding to phase out or reduce their reliance on nuclear energy.
  • At the same time, other countries have continued to invest in nuclear energy. China, for example, has an ambitious nuclear power program, with plans to increase its nuclear capacity to 70 GW by 2025.
  • There are also ongoing debates about the safety and security of nuclear power, as well as concerns about the storage and disposal of nuclear waste.
  • In addition, the cost of nuclear energy remains a significant barrier to its widespread adoption. While nuclear power can be relatively cheap once a plant is up and running, the high capital costs required to build new plants can be prohibitive.

Overall, the state of global nuclear energy is mixed, with some countries investing heavily in nuclear power while others are phasing out their programs. The industry faces ongoing challenges around safety, security, and cost, and its future trajectory will depend on a range of complex factors.