The Global Nuclear Power Comeback

The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant near Avila Beach, California, December 1, 2021.


George Rose/Getty Images

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a longtime nuclear energy critic, said in June she had changed her mind about California’s last nuclear power plant in Diablo Canyon. A closure makes little sense “under these circumstances”.

For years, even before the current global energy crisis, experts have been warning that a nuclear phase-out like Germany’s would choke energy supplies at a time when countries are transitioning from fossil fuels to climate compliance. Nuclear energy has been on the decline for decades. In 1996 it provided about 17% of world energy production; today it is about 10%. After the Fukushima accident in 2011, anti-nuclear sentiment swept the world, with Japan and Germany paving the way for full nuclear phase-out. In the US, 12 reactors have been shut down since 2012. The Energy Information Administration projects that the nuclear share of America’s electricity generation will fall from 20% today to 11% by 2050.

Some countries are reconsidering. The war in Ukraine has led even ardent nuclear critics to face the reality that trading domestic nuclear power production against dependence on Russian fossil fuels has been counterproductive. A prime example is the European Union’s recent decision to classify nuclear energy as “green”, potentially enabling billions of dollars in investments.

The EU member states are also beginning to act. The Belgian Greens made an about-face to extend the life of the country’s remaining two reactors by a decade. Poland is building its first plant, the Czech Republic is planning several reactors. Though France once toyed with shutting down 14 of its then 58 reactors, the country is now stepping up nuclear power, including next-generation designs. The Dutch government plans to build two new plants in response to war-related energy shortages. The Netherlands has even urged Germany to keep its remaining nuclear power plants online, though Berlin remains adamant.

The situation is similar in Asia and the Pacific. Japan plans to reverse its denuclearization by bringing nine nuclear reactors fully online this winter, while its 2030 emissions target is based on restarting a total of 30 reactors, according to a senior official. South Korea recently announced its goal to increase nuclear power generation by 30% over eight years. Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines are all investing in nuclear energy. Last month, Indonesia introduced legislation to start building its first nuclear power plant. China has slowly but surely established itself as the world’s largest investor in new nuclear power projects.

The US also appears to be changing course. In April, President Biden announced $6 billion in aid for troubled assets like Diablo Canyon. Private investors and government agencies are pouring billions into next-generation nuclear designs, called small modular reactors. West Virginia recently lifted its decades-long ban on nuclear power for this purpose. Wyoming convinced Bill Gates’ TerraPower to build its first facility there, while NuScale, the company that developed the first commercial small modular reactor design to be officially approved in the US, is building several next-generation reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory.

Opponents of nuclear power have been fueling fears of nuclear power for years. Many countries took the bait and shut down facilities that produce clean, reliable energy ahead of schedule. Now reality is forcing her to rethink. A report released last month by the International Energy Agency concludes that “the political landscape is changing and opening up possibilities for a nuclear comeback.” Countries seem to be waking up to the realization that they cannot achieve their climate, energy and national security goals without nuclear power.

Mr. Barnard is National Policy Director for the American Conservation Coalition.

Wonderland: The administrative state has created ideological divisions that cannot be reversed for a long time. But an updated judgment on climate change could help revive the critical role that substantive politics played at the time of America’s founding. Images: Reuters/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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