Nuclear power is the use of sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and do useful work.Nuclear electric plants, nuclear ships and submarines use controlled nuclear energy to heat water and produce steam, while in space, nuclear energy decays naturally in a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. Scientists are experimenting with fusion energy for future generation, but these experiments do not currently generate useful energy.
Nuclear power is controversial and there is an ongoing debate about the use of nuclear energy. Proponents, such as the World Nuclear Association and IAEA, contend that nuclear power is a sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions. Opponents, such asGreenpeace International and NIRS, believe that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment.
As of 2005, nuclear power provided 6.3% of the world's energy and 15% of the world's electricity, with the U.S., France, and Japan together accounting for 56.5% of nuclear generated electricity. In 2007, the IAEA reported there were 439 nuclear power reactors in operation in the world, operating in 31 countries. As of December 2009, the world had 436 reactors. Since commercial nuclear energy began in the mid 1950s, 2008 was the first year that no new nuclear power plant was connected to the grid, although two were connected in 2009.
Annual generation of nuclear power has been on a slight downward trend since 2007, decreasing 1.8% in 2009 to 2558 TWh with nuclear power meeting 13–14% of the world's electricity demand. One factor in the nuclear power percentage decrease since 2007 has been the prolonged shutdown of large reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant in Japan following the Niigata-Chuetsu-Oki earthquake.
The United States produces the most nuclear energy, with nuclear power providing 19% of the electricity it consumes, while France produces the highest percentage of its electrical energy from nuclear reactors—80% as of 2006. In the European Union as a whole, nuclear energy provides 30% of the electricity. Nuclear energy policy differs among European Union countries, and some, such as Austria, Estonia, Ireland and Italy, have no active nuclear power stations. In comparison, France has a large number of these plants, with 16 multi-unit stations in current use.
In the US, while the coal and gas electricity industry is projected to be worth $85 billion by 2013, nuclear power generators are forecast to be worth $18 billion.