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Fukushima Disaster: An End to the Nuclear Renaissance?

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011
Fukushima disaster

The tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan has sent a worldwide wake-up call. Countries throughout the world are now turning their eyes to alternative energy that can replace this carbon-free energy source.

The crisis is also raising anti-nuclear sentiment and leading nations are being called upon to reinforce and review their nuclear security measures and strategies. The Fukushima nuclear plant incident may also be threatening the “nuclear renaissance” of the 21st century, characterized by the advent of the revival of the nuclear energy source.

Since the United States Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear plant accident in 1978 and the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster in 1986, the anti-nuclear movement had gained worldwide support through to the end of the 20th century. Yet continuous efforts in this field by advanced countries, including the United States, have enabled the nuclear industry to focus on ensuring the security of nuclear plants as well as competitiveness with other countries. As a result, society’s preference for nuclear energy has increased, leading to even greater interest in investing in such energy.

Indeed, in the first decade of the 21st century, concerns about climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, and high fossil fuel prices have contributed to the preference for nuclear energy over other options. Nuclear energy releases less carbon dioxide— 10g/kWh—than renewable energy such as solar power and wind power. Currently, 442 nuclear power plants are providing approximately one-fifth of the world’s electricity, 62 are under construction, and 158 are in the planning stages.

Yet the Fukushima disaster has led governments around the world to reconsider the need for alternative energy. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered the shutdown of seven of the country’s 17 reactors that began operating before 1980 as well as the testing of all nuclear generators. Italy and Switzerland similarly put a halt to their new reactor plans. France has the highest dependency on nuclear energy in the world, getting approximately 80 percent of the nation’s electricity supply from this power generation source. The country is also pushing its new generation of the 1630MW European Pressurized Reactor (EPR), made by Areva. French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan on March 31 to underscore the need for common international safety standards for nuclear policy.

In the United States, during a March 30 speech at Georgetown University, President Barack Obama proposed reducing oil imports by one third by 2025. He also summarized new incentives to increase the production of biofuels, crude oil, and gas while calling for further development of alternative energy sources. The United States is home to 104 nuclear reactors—the most of any country in the world; 23 of these are the same design as the tsunami-stricken nuclear reactors in Fukushima.

Closer to Fukushima, South Korea, which depends on nuclear energy for approximately 40 percent of its energy, also responded to the incident. Korea annually produces 680 metric tons of spent fuel rods, and sources say that by 2016 South Korea will not have enough space to store used rods. As a temporary solution, the government announced it will establish waste storage facilities and select sites for construction.

Meanwhile, governments of emerging countries such as India and China announced they will continue with their previous plans for nuclear plant construction. Five days after the Fukushima disaster, China announced that it will suspend all new approvals for nuclear plants; however, on March 30, the media reported that Xie Zhenhua—vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission—said that China’s plan for nuclear plant expansion will not be changed. China currently has 13 nuclear facilities in operation and more than 100 nuclear plants planned.

Whether the Fukushima disaster will signal the demise of the nuclear renaissance remains unclear, but countries will certainly continue to take measures to find ways to lessen their dependency on nuclear energy. PricewaterhouseCooper’s report “Renewable Deals” projected that, regardless of the exact outcome of worldwide developments, “the Fukushima events are likely to shift the energy policy balance towards renewables.” As the ramifications of the Fukushima event continue to unfold, a complete change in society’s approach to alternative energy seems unlikely, but it is certain that the world before and after the disaster will have markedly different views of nuclear energy-dependent countries.

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