Nuclear Makes a Worldwide Comeback The Atomic Age Enters a New Dawn

Germany may still be debating whether to abandon its nuclear phase-out plans, but the rest of the world is already moving full steam ahead into expanding the use of nuclear technology. SPIEGEL ONLINE examines a glowing comeback, from Switzerland to China.

By Michael Sauga

It was seen as risky, dangerous and uneconomical. Less than 10 years ago nuclear energy was still being treated as yesterday's news.

After the devastating Chernobyl reactor disaster, hardly any countries were interested in placing their bets on nuclear technology, and not even the energy companies believed that electricity from nuclear power plants had much of a future.

Nuclear power is back.

Nuclear power is back.

Today the sinister technology, still more unpopular than almost any other, is experiencing an unexpected comeback. Thirty-six new reactors are currently being built worldwide, while another 81 are in the planning stages. And it has not escaped the attention of Germans that new nuclear power plants are not just being planned in the emerging nations of Asia and Eastern Europe, but are also back on the drawing board in the United States and Great Britain.

Two fundamental developments are fueling the nuclear energy comeback. The international effort to combat climate change favors power generation technologies that involve relatively low emissions of carbon dioxide. This includes nuclear reactors, which emit only a fraction of the amount of CO2 into the environment that comes from a coal-fired power plant, for example.

Rising oil prices are also a boost for nuclear energy. Until recently, it was considered especially cost-effective to produce electricity in small and flexible natural gas power plants. Gas was relatively cheap, and the plants were significantly less expensive to build than a nuclear power plant.

But for months now, gas prices have followed the steep rise in oil prices, and it is becoming increasingly clear to Western nations that the world's gas reserves are primarily in countries that are not necessarily considered the most political stable on earth, such as Libya and Russia. Many Western politicians now fear that those who choose to turn their backs on nuclear power could very well be putting themselves at the mercy of arbitrary dictators and autocrats.

In light of these new realities on the energy markets, many are now once again seeing nuclear energy as the lesser evil.

Seven examples of the global nuclear renaissance:

Prefab Reactors and Longer Lives

No nuclear reactors have been built in the United States since the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. But that is about to change. Dozens of new reactors are on the way. more...

Nuclear Power in the Earthquake Zone

Turkey has long been wary of relying too much on Russia and Iran for its energy needs. Now, it wants to build two nuclear power plants. But in a country prone to earthquakes, is it safe? more...

Putting Nuclear to the Vote

Switzerland may expand its nuclear power lineup from five to eight reactors. There is still little resistance to the new reactors among the Swiss, who have come to accept nuclear power. more...

The British Atomic Green Revolution

Jahrelang For years, nuclear energy was seen as an "unattractive option" in Great Britain, and the country's nuclear phase-out was in fact a done deal. But in light of soaring oil prices, the British government is rethinking its position, even praising nuclear power as an environmentally friendly alternative. more...

The Monologue of Nuclear Power

Russia plans to build up to 40 new nuclear reactors in the near future. But experts warn that may not be possible. The country lacks experts, skilled personnel and a clear idea about what to do with the waste. more...

An Archipelago of Staunch Nuclear Supporters

Hardly any other country is as committed to atomic energy as Japan, with the island nation deriving a large share of its energy from nuclear plants. Even a large number of incidents and the ever-present risk of earthquakes have not deterred the Japanese from the costly expansion of their nuclear facilities. more...

An Energetic Newcomer

China is expanding its use of nuclear energy faster than almost any nation in the world, with plans for 19 new nuclear reactors by 2020. But is there a Chinese debate over the consequences of nuclear expansion? Hardly. more...


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