Seventy years ago, some experts were convinced that nuclear power would change the world for the better. "Here was the power that would do all work…of a veritable Utopia," the editors of a book on the Atomic Age wrote in 1945.
They also thought it would quickly grow. In the mid-1960s, one estimate predicted that by the year 2000, nuclear power would supply more than half of all the electricity in the U.S. As of 2016, it's at a little less than 20%; globally, it's only about 14%.
A new map from Carbon Brief shows the location of every reactor ever built around the world, including the 400 nuclear power stations now in use and others under construction. "Once you see it visually like that, you really get a sense of where the history of nuclear power is, and where it's future is going to be," says Simon Evans, policy editor for the U.K.-based Carbon Brief.
Some countries have given up on nuclear power completely, such as Germany, which closed eight reactors after the disaster at Fukushima in 2011 and plans to close the rest by 2022. Lithuania and Italy have shut down their reactors. Sweden's national power company announced in January that its nuclear plants are losing money, and may shut down for financial reasons.
Part of the reason for slow growth of nuclear is the gigantic cost of building a plant. While technologies like wind and solar keep dropping dramatically in price, nuclear is getting more expensive in most countries. Since the mid-1950s, when the price of both nuclear and solar panels was first published, the cost of nuclear power has gone up three times. Solar, on the other hand, has become 2,500 times cheaper in the same period.
New reactors at Georgia Power's Vogtle plant were initially estimated to cost $14 billion to build; the latest estimate is $21 billion. The first reactors at the plant, in the 1970s, took a decade longer to build than planned, and cost 10 times more than expected. In France, a new plant is running around six years behind scheduled and likely to cost around $8 billion more than planned.
Despite the costs, as the map shows, several new plants are under construction, mostly in Asia. Of the 66 nuclear reactors being built now, 24 are in China. India hopes to increase nuclear capacity from 6 gigawatts to 63 gigawatts by 2032, though they haven't figured out how to finance that. In the U.K., after not building a new nuclear plant for decades, there are controversial plans for a massive new station that may cost around $26 billion.
The International Energy Agency has said that the world needs to build new reactors four times as fast to meet climate targets. But is that really true?
"New nuclear power would be a real setback in terms of trying to solve the climate problem," says Mark Jacobson, an engineering professor at Stanford who has researched how renewable power could meet all energy needs in the U.S. "Even if there were no issues like meltdown or waste proliferation—which are serious issues—it's just so costly and it takes so long to put up new nuclear reactors that by the time the next set of nuclear reactors are planned, permitted, constructed, it takes 10-19 years. The Arctic ice will be gone."
Nuclear power isn't entirely "clean," in terms of greenhouse gas pollution, because the large amount of energy used to refine uranium often comes from fossil fuels.
Even keeping old reactors running may not make financial sense. In California, for example, extending the life of the Diablo Canyon plant will require new cooling towers that cost around $8 billion. It may also need billions in earthquake retrofits, because engineers realized after the project was built that it's on a fault line.
"For $8 billion, you can replace the entire Diablo Canyon with the same power produced by a combination of on-shore wind and utility-scale solar PV," says Jacobson.
There's also the inherent risk of even the "safest" nuclear reactors, and the problem of what happens when a plant is decommissioned. "You can't do anything with the property for at least 60 years," he says. "Probably there's enough radioactivity for thousands of years."
Instead, Jacobson says, it's possible to produce cost-effective, reliable power from solar, wind, and hydroelectricity. It's also possible to provide that power around-the-clock, as recent projects like a 24-hour solar farm near Las Vegas proves.
"People who are pushing nuclear aren't driven by science or logic, but idealism and passion," he says.