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October 17, 2013

Global nuclear generation capacity totaled more than 370 gigawatts in 2012

Map of world nuclear capacity, as described in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, International Energy Statistics

The first nuclear generating units were built in the 1950s, and, as of 2012, nuclear generating units have reached a global capacity of 370 gigawatts (click on animation above to assess trends). Nuclear reactors were first used to generate electricity in 1951 at a small experimental reactor in the United States. Currently, 31 countries have nuclear power programs. From the early 1970s to the early 1990s, nuclear power steadily grew around the world, with brief periods of relatively slow growth following the accidents at Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986), as the nuclear industry absorbed the lessons learned from both incidents.

With the exception of the developing economies in Asia, nuclear power capacity remained relatively stable between the mid 1980s until the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor in March of 2011. Following the accident at Fukushima, nuclear industry reactions to the accident varied widely. Italy canceled its plans to build new nuclear power plants. Germany announced the shutdown of all nuclear power plants by 2022. China—where plans for large increases in nuclear capacity had been announced—instituted a temporary moratorium on new approvals for nuclear power construction that lasted 20 months before it was lifted at the end of October 2012.

Many countries, including the United States, have revised or are in the process of revising their safety regulations to address the lessons learned from the accident at Fukushima. In Japan, where all but two of the country's 50 reactors remain shut down, the issuance of new safety standards in July 2013 has led to applications to restart several reactors.

Regional trends:

  • North America. The first fully commercial nuclear power plant, Dresden Unit 1, was built in the United States. Dresden Unit 1, located in Illinois, had a capacity of 250 Megawatts electric (MWe) and operated from 1960 to 1978. Canada soon followed with its first reactor in 1962. Nuclear capacity grew quickly between 1970 and 1995. The United States is currently constructing five new nuclear power plants, and in 2012, Canada issued the first site preparation license in 30 years for construction of up to four new nuclear power plants.
  • Europe. France, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Italy, and the United Kingdom commissioned nuclear power plants in the 1960s. Since 1995, capacity in Europe has remained relatively stable. Additions of new capacity through construction of new nuclear power plants have often been offset by nuclear power plant retirements. Although Germany is shutting down all of its nuclear power plants, several countries, including France and the United Kingdom, are constructing or have announced plans to construct new nuclear power plants.
  • Eurasia and Asia. Russia and Japan also built and operated commercial nuclear power plants in the 1960s. Asia has added nuclear capacity in more recent decades. Between 1980 and 2012, nuclear capacity in Asia nearly quadrupled, led primarily by Korea, Japan, and India. More recently, growth in nuclear capacity in Asia has been led primarily by China. Between 2010 and 2012, nine new reactors began operating in this region. The amount of planned new nuclear capacity in North America and Europe is relatively small in comparison to the planned capacity in countries including Russia, Japan, China, Korea, and India.

There are 69 nuclear power reactors under construction around the world, mostly in Asia where electricity demand is increasing in developing economies. New nuclear capacity is based on projected increased electricity demand in rapidly developing countries coupled with energy security awareness and the desire to limit carbon emissions. More information about future growth in nuclear power is available on a regional basis in EIA's International Energy Outlook 2013 and on a country-specific basis through IAEA's Power Reactor Information System.

Principal contributors: Nancy Slater-Thompson, Marta Gospodarczyk