Cross posted from Climate Central.
To better understand the state of the nuclear power industry, Climate Central has built the following interactive map of nuclear facilities as reported by the World Nuclear Association. This map shows every nuclear reactor that has ever been connected to the electric grid, as well as a number of plants (though not all) that are planned. The table beneath the map — which will fill in once you press “play” — shows how many power plants have been built during each decade.
How To Use This Map:
Toggle the different categories of power plants (operating, shut down, etc.) on and off by using the check boxes at the bottom right. Multiple reactors are typically co-located, so you might not see them unless you deselect other categories. To learn more about a reactor, click on it to see its vital statistics, as well as a link to the World Nuclear Association, where you can find more facts about each.
Click “Play” to watch how the global nuclear power industry has changed over time, with reactor startups and retired reactor shutdowns. Note that while the timeline is playing, you cannot check or uncheck the boxes.
This data was last updated prior to the nuclear crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Since then a number of power plants have been shut down in Japan, and a few in Germany are also temporarily closed.
Why did most countries stop building power plants in the 1990s and 2000s?
The table beneath the map tells a dramatic story: 391 reactors were built between 1970 and 1990, but only 92 were built between 1990 and 2010. In the United States, where 104 reactors currently provide electricity, only five reactors have been built since 1990. Why?
Many point to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 (see Mike Lemonick's story on the fact that this event is still unfolding), and the Three Mile Island Accident in 1979 as reasons that the public turned against nuclear power. Yet, in the United States, the nuclear industry was already slowing down before Three Mile Island.
In the U.S., many orders for new nuclear power plants were cancelled in the late '70s and '80s largely because the costs of building plants were more expensive than coal or natural gas-fired power plants. One important reason that costs escalated was growing public opposition to building new plants, and unresolved safety and cost questions about radioactive waste disposal and plant decommissioning. These concerns increased legal costs and dramatically extended the time required to build a nuclear plant. Thus, construction costs escalated. Another important reason is that the massive size of nuclear reactors and lack of standardization in technology required each power plant to be more or less custom-built.
Europe’s drive to build nuclear power plants was largely spearheaded after the oil embargos of the 1970s, with France playing a major role — today France generates about sixty percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors. New orders, though, fell off in the late 1980s for similar reasons as in the United States: high costs and public opposition. The Chernobyl accident, which resulted in radioactive fallout across Europe, further deepened public opposition.
Today, China and India are the only countries pursuing nuclear power on a significant scale: India has plans for another 18 power plants, and China has 110 in the pipeline. It remains to be seen whether the costs of building nuclear reactors in these countries will be less than they were in the U.S., or whether the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima facility will scuttle plans for many of these plants. Some experts have been advocating for small modular reactors as a less costly way of generating nuclear power, but those have remained on the drawing board.
How much carbon dioxide pollution have nuclear power plants avoided?
If the few hundred nuclear reactors on the map had not been built, other power plants would likely have been constructed, the majority of which would have been powered by fossil fuels. How much carbon dioxide (CO2) would these plants have emitted?
We can’t know for sure, but by using data from the map and making a few basic assumptions, we can get a rough estimate. The data includes the lifetime and generating capacity of every nuclear power plant that has ever been built.
Today, nuclear power plants worldwide operate on average about 80 percent of the time. In earlier years, they were shut down for longer periods, with closer to a 55 percent in service rate. Given these operating percentages, let’s assume for estimation purposes that nuclear power plants throughout their entire history have operated on average at 70 percent of their capacity. In that case, the nuclear power industry globally has produced about 60 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity.
If these power plants had not been built, let’s assume the electricity would have been generated instead from a mix of coal, natural gas, and hydropower in the proportions that these are used today (roughly 2:1:1). Given how much CO2 these sources emit on average per kilowatt hour (natural gas: 907 grams of CO2; coal: 590 grams; hydropower: 0 grams), we can estimate that each kilowatt-hour of nuclear power avoided about 600 grams of CO2 from entering the atmosphere.
That means that the nuclear industry has avoided emissions of about 40 billion tons of CO2. That is one third more CO2 than humans put into the atmosphere every year from burning fossil fuels. It is also about one-twelfth of the cumulative CO2 people have added to the atmosphere during the past 160 years from burning coal, natural gas, and petroleum. This is a rough estimate, yet it shows that nuclear power has played a major role in lowering CO2 emissions.
The clear question for society — and one that is highly debated — is whether the risks and costs of nuclear power outweigh the industry’s significant potential to offset fossil fuels.
Map Data and Disclaimer
The data was obtained from the World Nuclear Association’s online database, which can be accessed from their website. Many countries have “planned” reactors that are not shown on this map. Furthermore, the location of some planned reactors, especially in China, is only approximate.