Back to the Future: Nuclear Power

With climate change, those who know the most are the most frightened. With nuclear power, those who know the most are the least frightened.

—Variously attributed

Nuclear power is considered by many to be an old technology locked in the past— they say the future is with solar and wind. Commercial nuclear power began in 1951 when Russia built the first civilian nuclear power reactor, followed by the British in 1956 and the Americans in 1957 (1). In the 1960s and 1970s, nuclear power plants blossomed all over the world. There were 42 reactors in the United States in 1973; by 1990 there were 112. Some of these were closed, so by 1998 there were 104 operating nuclear reactors (the same number operating at the end of 2012) providing about 100 GWe (gigawatts electric 1 ) to the grid. Worldwide, there were 432 operating nuclear reactors as of mid-2013. Nuclear reactors have been providing about 20% of the electricity in the United States for over 20 years, with no emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) (2). France gets nearly 75% of its electricity from nuclear power, the highest proportion of any nation. Germany and Japan each got more than 25% of their electricity from nuclear power in 2010; though Germany shut down about half of its reactors, Japan temporarily shut down all of its reactors, and both are consider­ing permanently closing down their reactors after the accident in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 (3). So nuclear power has been providing electricity for over 50 years and plays a major role in the energy mix for a number of countries.

But nuclear power is also critically important for an energy future that will meet our electrical power needs with minimal production of greenhouse gases and benign effects on the environment. We must go back to the future if we want to make serious inroads into reducing greenhouse gases and global warming. To see why nuclear power is critical for the future, let’s begin our journey by touring a nuclear power plant.

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