There are now 439 nuclear reactors in operation around the world in over 30 countries, providing almost 16% of the world’s electricity. The first commercial reactors came into operation during the late 1950s, but the industry really “took off” in the 1970s, when concern over energy security and fossil fuel prices prompted many governments and power companies to consider nuclear plants. Over 200 reactors came into operation during the 1980s, but by the end of the decade, there had already been a marked slowdown of orders prompted by a range of economic and public acceptance issues. In the period since, many commentators began to write the industry off, expecting a slow death with plant decommissioning expected to be the only buoyant activity.
By the turn of the 21st century, however, there were already signs of a sharp revival of fortunes. The key to this was undoubtedly the improved operating performance of the reactors already in place, with the realization that that they could earn significant profits for their owners, even in liberalized power markets. It is now generally expected that most of these will achieve extensions to their previously licensed operating lives, while many are experiencing power output up-rates of up to 20%. In addition, many years of safe operation after the Chernobyl accident in 1986 have eased public acceptance concerns, while volatile fossil fuel prices and energy security concerns have prompted consideration of all alternative generation options. But perhaps the most significant factor that has prompted discussion of a nuclear renaissance is the increased global attention placed on climate change. Nuclear power emits only a minor amount of greenhouse gases and is attracting a significant amount of renewed attention, along with alternative low-carbon energy sources such as renewables.
New reactor programs are currently being led by the Asian countries, particularly China and India, but many of the countries with more established nuclear sectors, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia are now seriously planning new build. They have been joined by many other countries now considering nuclear reactors for the first time, such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and several in the Middle East.
A complex industry can be conveniently divided into several sections. A huge amount of R&D work goes into reactor designs, a sector that has now consolidated into a small number of players who can sell throughout the world. Capital costs of nuclear plants are relatively high by comparison with rival technologies and building on time and on budget is essential. This involves many local subcontractors but there are a number of major international companies involved in this area. The nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to waste disposal, has a number of specialist activities, each of which are carried out by a limited number of companies worldwide. More in the background are a number of technology, equipment and service companies, who provide a range of specialized products and services to all areas of the industry. Finally, there is a group of electricity utilities for whom nuclear plants represent a significant share of their generating capacity.