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May 17, 2012

Global generation capacity for nuclear power has grown to over 346 gigawatts since 1955

animated map of World petroleum consumption by region, 1980-2010

animated map of World petroleum consumption by region, 1980-2010
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, IAEA Power Reactor Information System (PRIS).
Note: Annual data.

Nuclear generating capacity additions began in the 1950s and now top 346 gigawatts worldwide (click on animation above to assess trends). The first nuclear reactor to produce electricity was a very small experimental reactor in the United States in 1951. Currently, 30 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 (North America, 1979) and Chernobyl (Former Soviet Union, 1986), as the nuclear industry absorbed the lessons learned from both accidents. Since then, nuclear power capacity has remained relatively stable throughout most of the world, with the exception of rapidly developing countries in Asia. An upcoming Today in Energy article will address post-Fukushima impacts on Japan's nuclear capacity.

Regional trends:

  • North America—primarily the United States—nuclear capacity developed most quickly between 1970 and 1995. The first fully commercial nuclear power plant was built in the United States; Dresden Unit 1 (250 megawatts) operated from 1960 to 1978. Canada soon followed with its first reactor in 1962.
  • Europe followed a similar growth pattern. France, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Italy, and the United Kingdom commissioned nuclear power plants in the 1960s. Since 1995, capacity in North America and Europe has remained relatively stable. Addition of new capacity through construction of new nuclear power plants has often been offset by nuclear power plant retirements.
  • In Eurasia and Asia, Russia and Japan also operated commercial nuclear power plants in the 1960s. Asia has added nuclear capacity in more recent decades. Between 1980 and 2010, nuclear capacity in Asia quadrupled, led primarily by Korea, Japan, and India. More recently, growth in nuclear capacity in Asia has been led primarily by China, where capacity has quintupled in the last ten years.

Plans to add new nuclear capacity in North America and Europe are relatively small in comparison to those in such countries as China, Korea, and India. Projected increased electricity demand in rapidly developing countries coupled with energy security awareness and the desire to limit carbon emissions are contributing to the worldwide addition of new nuclear capacity.