Once shunned because of its unpopularity with the public and its high investment cost, nuclear energy has experienced a resurgence in recent years, with 36 reactors currently under construction and a further hundred planned. In 2008 there were 439 active nuclear reactors, generating 6.3% of the world’s energy in the form of electricity.
This resurgence is linked to the relative shortage in energy and the fact that nuclear power gives off very little CO2. And while the construction of infrastructures, extraction and transportation of nuclear fuel produces its share of greenhouse gases, the sectorís carbon footprint is substantially smaller than that of fossil fuels.
However, supplies of uranium—the principal fuel used in nuclear plants—won’t last forever. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), existing stocks will only be able to meet the needs of the world’s reactors for another century, although there is always the chance that new deposits will be found. But this does not take into account the increasing numbers of reactors. Unless the reactors of future are able to turn to other, more abundant types of fuel, uranium may become scarce rather sooner.
The Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986 demonstrated the very real risks of a nuclear accident. Twenty years on, the consequences are still open to debate. The IAEA estimates that a total of around 4,000 people died as a result of the catastrophe, but other organizations argue that this figure does not account for the large number of victims among the 600,000 workers and soldiers sent in to extinguish the fire and build the new safe confinement structure. Uranium extraction can also be dangerous, both for miners and for the environment. It is still not known how to dispose of radioactive waste safely. And the risk of leaks or terrorist attacks is ever-present.
How should we address the pros and cons of nuclear energy? Some countries have consulted the public, such as Italy and Sweden, which have held referenda. In others, such as France— where 78% of electricity is produced by nuclear plants—the state has made unilateral decisions on nuclear policy.