Fukushima proved turn-off point for nuclear power
The Japanese disaster made many reject the nuclear option, but China's need to replace fossil fuels has kept its hopes alive
Inspectors check storage tanks for contaminated water at Fukushima Daiichi, the nuclear power plant crippled by tsunami in March 2011. Photograph: EPA
Nuclear power generation fell last year by its steepest annual level since the industry began because of the continuing impact of the Fukushima accident in Japan. Despite going out of favour in some countries, 66 new reactors are under construction, most in China.
The amount of electricity produced by atomic plants was measured at 2,349 terrawatts per hour (TWh) in 2012, which was 7 percent less than in 2011 and 11 percent lower than 2010 just before Fukushima, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Nuclear power as a technology was in the doldrums following the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents in 1986 and 1979. It has come back into favour because of worries about how to replace fossil fuels to reduce carbon emissions.
That renaissance was brought to a juddering halt by Fukushima in March 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami hit the power plant, causing enormous damage and a release of radioactive materials. This triggered the immediate shutdown of plants in Japan but also encouraged Germany another major user of atomic power to decide to phase out its remaining plants. Sweden, Italy and Spain made similar moves.
The 48 operable Japanese reactors produced no power in 2012 but there were also serious outages at four plants in the United States, while three new plants came on stream two in South Korea and one in China.
The Ningde 1 is the first of four reactors being built in Fujian province, alongside a further 24 as the world's second largest economy has made by the far the biggest commitment to atomic power. China is keen to move away as quickly as possible from a dependence on coal-fired electricity generation, whose air pollution is a cause of deep unease at the highest level of government.
Russia is the second biggest builder of new reactors, with 10 under construction. There are six in India and a handful elsewhere in the world, such as France and Finland. The announcement that the Hinkley Point C plant will go ahead in the UK will give hope to other nuclear operators, notably Hitachi of Japan which is eyeing other sites.
Calder Hall on the now-sprawling Sellafield site in Cumbria is regarded as the first power station in the world to generate electricity on an industrial scale from nuclear energy. It is now being decommissioned along with many other plants in Britain, such as Oldbury 1 in Gloucestershire and Wylfa 1 on Angelsey in North Wales, which closed last year. Both plants had reached the end of their working lives, although life extensions have also been granted to other facilities.
The peak for nuclear power generation was 2006 when 2,660 TWh was produced worldwide. The volume of new reactors easily outnumbered those being retired. But in pure numbers of reactors, the high point was 11 years ago at 444, according to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013.
Most reactors are regarded as having a life span of around 30 to 40 years, but 44 are said to be operating beyond this limitation already. The average age of plants worldwide is around 28 years.