"Expectations for nuclear power are rising around the world," says Alan McDonald, an analyst at the headquarters of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. "Our director-general, Mohammad el-Baradei, gives a speech to the members of the IAEA every year. Up until last year, he's always characterized nuclear power around the world as being on a plateau. Last year was the first year he used the phrase 'rising expectations,' and I think that's the best characterization."
McDonald stresses that exactly 50 years since the first electricity was generated by nuclear power in Obninsk in Russia, it now accounts for over 16 percent of the world's electricity generation. There are 440 nuclear reactors in use around the world, plus another 26 under construction.
Still In Development
Some 94 percent of the world's nuclear capacity is still in the most developed countries. The United States has 104 reactors in operation, and in France 59 reactors provide 78 percent of all electricity. There are also, for example, 55 reactors in Japan, 31 in Russia, 18 in Canada and 17 in Germany.
McDonald says that, increasingly, countries are planning for new nuclear plants.
"Finland has started last year, 2005, the first new construction of a nuclear plant since 1991 in Europe, and Canada has brought a couple of plants back on line," McDonald says, "and the United States just passed some legislation that increases incentives for nuclear power."
Other experts also confirm that oil and gas price rises are having an impact on many countries' economic and political strategies.
"The main variable which has changed, I believe, has been the big increase in the price of natural gas," David Butter, the chief energy analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, says. "That certainly is affecting decisions in the industry about where to focus their investment in new power generation capacity."
Butter says that there are more reasons for this return to nuclear generation than just oil and gas price increases. One of them is the inability of some industrialized countries to maintain their non-nuclear energy policy and simultaneously fulfill their commitments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions under the Kyoto Protocols.
Of the 15 European Union signatories of the protocols, only a few look set to meet their targets, according to the EU's Institute for Public Policy Research. Collectively, the EU-15 still have a long way to go to meet the bloc's commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent from 1990 levels by 2008-2012.
Another reason for looking again at nuclear energy generation is suspicion among some European government experts that sole dependence on one gas supplier could make EU states vulnerable to political blackmail.
"The world was reminded of this with the incident on the first of January when Russia shut off Ukrainian gas flows," McDonald says. "That affected Europe [because it] is very dependent on Russian gas and is projected to be increasingly more so. One way to reduce that dependence or at least make it softer would be to expand the nuclear."
Other experts agree. Graham Weale, the director of European Energy Services at the Global Insight Consultancy in London, says Britain is a very good example of the fast-changing preferences.
The British government's energy policy until now has envisaged a complete nuclear phase-out and increasing reliance on gas imports and alternative energy generation such as wind turbines. As Britain's existing 23 nuclear power stations age, they are due to close gradually.
But now the government is expected to change its strategy radically and announce a return to nuclear generation this year.
"The government has become increasingly concerned about the dependence upon gas, and recent events have perhaps increased the perceived price risk," Weale says.
The last reason for returning to nuclear energy, industry experts claim, is its safety record. The industry claims the lessons of Chornobyl were learned long ago. They also argue that with deep underground storage, even spent reactor fuel is no longer a problem.
Not only industrialized countries are looking again at nuclear energy. So, too, are states with developing economies.
Of the new 26 nuclear plants under construction, 18 are in Asia. India, for example, gets about 3 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and China about 2 percent, and both are expected to increase that share in the future.
"India plans to expand its capacity by a factor of 10 by 2022, and by a factor of 100 by 2052," McDonald says. "In China, they want to expand by a factor of five or six within the next 15 years. Brazil has two operating reactors; Mexico has two; Argentina has two; South Africa has two."
With all these developments, McDonald concludes that the current balance of nuclear-generated energy versus other types of energy has already begun shifting. The IAEA now expects the global nuclear capacity to almost double by 2030.
For a rundown by country of nuclear energy dependence, click here.
Who's building nuclear plants?
• Finland began construction on a new nuclear reactor last year.
• France has given approval for a similar one and has plans for another.
• Bulgaria is expected to award a contract this month for building two units.
• Romania has resumed building a power station after a 15-year lull.
• The Czech Republic has plans to build two more nuclear plants by the end of the decade.
• Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Italy, and Germany are all reconsidering previous plans to cap or phase out nuclear programs.
SOURCE: "The Christian Science Monitor"