Bushehr went critical. According to industry news outlets, the Iranian nuclear reactor project was finally completed on May 8, 2011 -- 36 years after the first shovel hit the ground. The historic event closely followed the first grid connection, on May 3, of the second unit of the Chinese Ling Ao II nuclear plant. And on March 14, only three days after the Fukushima crisis began, and without any publicity, the Pakistani Chasnupp-2 reactor generated its first power.
These milestones suggest that it is business as usual in the nuclear world, despite the ongoing Japanese crisis. But are projects still lining up, investors eager to engage, politicians convinced, and public opinion in favor of continued nuclear energy development? Where does the industry stand today? And how does the current situation compare with life before Fukushima?
The first global analysis of the state of the industry before and after the Japanese drama began shows that the industry was having difficulties before Fukushima hit the news and that political reactions to Fukushima were surprisingly fast and deep in a number of countries.
The accident came where few expected it to happen. On March 11, triggered by the largest earthquake in the nation's history, a nuclear catastrophe of yet unknown proportions started unfolding in the world's preeminent high-tech country: Japan. Analysts at Swiss-based investment bank UBS summarized the situation in early April 2011: "At Fukushima, four reactors have been out of control for weeks -- casting doubt on whether even an advanced economy can master nuclear safety ... . We believe the Fukushima accident was the most serious ever for the credibility of nuclear power."
After months of uncertainty, the seemingly endless patience of the Japanese people is eroding. Tens of thousands of evacuees are waiting for clear information about when, if ever, they can return home. Dogs and cows that were left behind wander along empty roads. Measurements taken as far as 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Fukushima plant show extremely high levels of radiation at schools outside the evacuation zone. People don't know what they can safely eat or drink.
Prior to the events in Japan, it appeared that the international nuclear industry had successfully overcome the "Chernobyl syndrome." The 1986 disaster and its horrific consequences were largely forgotten, downplayed, or ignored. In December 2010, the oldest Ukrainian reactor, Rovno-1, was granted a 20-year lifetime extension, and by 2030 the country projected a doubling of its installed nuclear capacity. Belarus plans to enter into an agreement with Russia to build its first nuclear power plant. And Russia officially has 11 reactors under construction, second only to China.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), "some 60 countries have turned to the IAEA for guidance" as they consider introducing nuclear power. One IAEA expert estimates that "probably 11 or 12 countries ... are actively developing the infrastructure for a nuclear power program." Today there are more units under construction worldwide than in any year since 1988 (except for 2010). Fifteen projects broke ground in 2010 -- more than in any year since the Chernobyl disaster. Is this, finally, the "nuclear renaissance" that the industry has been heralding for the past decade?
The answer is no. Construction starts aside, many industry status indicators are on a negative trend. As of 2010, a total of 30 countries were operating nuclear fission reactors for energy purposes -- one fewer than in previous years. Lithuania became the third country ever to revert to "non-nuclear energy" status, following Italy, which abandoned nuclear power after Chernobyl, and Kazakhstan, which shut down its only reactor in 1999.
Nuclear production briefly increased to a worldwide total of 2,630 terawatt-hours (TWh or billion kilowatt-hours) of electricity in 2010, a gain of 2.8 percent over the preceding year. Before that, however, production had fallen for three years in a row, with nuclear power plants generating 103 TWh (or nearly 4 percent) less electricity in 2009 than in 2006. Production in 2010 was practically identical to production in 2005, and production in 2011 will undoubtedly be lower.
The full contents of this article are available in the July/August issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and can be found here. This article is drawn from the annual World Nuclear Status Report.