Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Five years after Fukushima, here’s an overview of the global nuclear power sector.
Five years ago, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit japan, triggering a Tsunami and causing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. The 30-foot-high waves that hit the country’s eastern seaboard knocked out the electricity at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, setting off a chain of events that caused radioactive materials to leak out. As a direct result of this incident, thousands of families lost their homes and livelihoods, children got sick with cancer, and the flora and fauna in the vicinity of the the plant became radioactive. Even today—five years after—the plant continues to contaminate the water around it.
Fukushima and other, similarly tragic nuclear disasters have significantly affected the landscape of nuclear energy, according to a new interactive map (above) and accompanying blog post by Carbon Brief, a U.K.-based climate change and energy policy website. The map lays out the location, capacity, and operating status of all 667 nuclear plants built since 1954, including those that are still under construction, per International Atomic Energy Agency data.
The motivation behind this visualization isn’t to come down for or against nuclear power. It is simply to “provide a resource for readers to be able to see the global 'portfolio' of nuclear power plants, be they in operation, shut down, or under construction,” Leo Hickman, the website’s director and editor, tells CityLab via email.
Here are two big takeaways from Carbon Brief’s map:
Nuclear power has fallen out of favor in many regions around the world. Many European countries, including Lithuania and Italy, have closed down their plans, and Germany is following suit. Countries in Asia, on the other hand, have been heading in the opposite direction: 51 new reactors have been added on that continent over the past 20 years, while the rest of the world has collectively added just 30. This means that the future of nuclear power is different in different parts of the world, as Carbon Brief’s blog post points out:
Whereas western nations’ nuclear power capacities are static or declining, China’s is accelerating rapidly and set to grow further.
Previous disasters have had plenty to do with the slowdown. Total global nuclear power generation capacity came down from 378 gigawatts in 2005 to 345 gigawatts in 2015 due to all the plants that shut down after the Fukushima disaster. Construction time for new facilities went up after the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979, because more protections and safety standards were rightly put in. And in the decades after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the share of global electricity generated from nuclear energy has decreased. Again, via Carbon Brief:
In the 25 years after Chernobyl, nuclear construction declined while global demand for electricity more than doubled. As a result, nuclear’s share of total electricity supplies peaked just shy of 18% in 1996 before falling to 11% in 2014.
The Fukushima disaster was the biggest civil liability case in history. And even though the blame for the incident was placed on the company operating the plant, the financial burden is being borne by ordinary taxpayers who were worst-affected by the disaster, according to researchers at the University of Cambridge. It’s clear from the above data that the Fukushima incident made the world think twice, and think carefully, about perils of putting a new nuclear plant in their midst—perhaps inevitably at the cost of achieving future climate goals.