Chernobyl 25 years later: Do major nuclear accidents stop countries from building new nuclear reactors?

News and commentary about environmental issues.
April 26 2011 7:00 AM

Nuclear Inertia

How do nuclear accidents affect nuclear power-plant construction? I built a giant database to find out.

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If we apply these historical trends to the current nuclear situation, what do we find?

The nuclear industry began to tout a "global nuclear renaissance" in the 2000s, in light of the belief that nuclear power could be a partial solution to climate change. According to one study, 81 countries were exploring the nuclear energy option by 2009. But few of these countries were actually building reactors.

Most of the real nuclear expansion took place in existing nuclear energy states. Strikingly, more than 98 percent (60 of 61) of the nuclear power plants that were under construction at the time of the Fukushima disaster were being built in states that already had at least one reactor. (Iran's Bushehr plant is the one exception.) And nearly 50 percent of these plants were being built in a single country—China. Collectively, just four countries—China, India, Russia, and South Korea—accounted for more than three-quarters of the nuclear expansion that was taking place as of early 2011.

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Fukushima's greatest effect on nuclear construction will probably come in countries that have toyed with the idea of nuclear power—notably Bangladesh, Egypt, Thailand, Turkey, the UAE, and Vietnam—but not yet built reactors. Most probably, these countries will build fewer nuclear power plants than they would have in a Fukushima disaster-less world. The cases of China and Romania show, however, that it would not be unprecedented for a new nuclear energy state to emerge in the wake of a major accident, especially if that country happens to be nondemocratic.

My forecasts assume that the response to the Fukushima disaster will conform to historical trends. The Japanese catastrophe is a nightmare scenario for the nuclear industry. It occurred in a democratic country with a highly developed civilian nuclear program and—unlike the Chernobyl plant—the Fukushima reactors were based on American designs that were widely believed to be safe. Together, these factors might be enough to overcome the prevailing nuclear inertia.

Correction, April 26, 2011: Originally this article mistakenly stated that an accident at the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station released radioactive helium. The helium was not radioactive, though the accident did release heavy water. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Matthew Fuhrmann is a Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.