A year on from Fukushima, Malcolm Grimston finds that nuclear policies have ridden out the stormby Malcolm Grimston / March 20, 2012 / Leave a comment
A year ago, nuclear power was on the up. Twice as many reactors were under construction globally as in 2007. Phase-out policies in countries like Germany, Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands had been replaced by plans for new build. Even Italy, the only country to have phased out its nuclear industry (after a post-Chernobyl referendum), planned to restart its programme. Reactors were under construction in Finland and France; 28 preliminary licence applications had been made in the United States. Canada had new build plans and expansion was proposed across central and eastern Europe and in the far east. Several dozen countries had hinted they meant to join the nuclear club for the first time.
Then came the earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan in March 2011, and the crisis at the Fukushima No 1 plant: the cores of three of its six reactors were severely damaged (the radioactivity leak was second only to that of Chernobyl).
One year on, what have been the consequences of this accident for the much-anticipated global nuclear renaissance?
The short answer is “varied.” In some areas, it is business as usual, after a delay in licensing procedures to examine or implement lessons from Fukushima. In Britain, the government has proceeded with developing electricity market reforms designed to promote investment in new nuclear plants. Preliminary work, for example by EDF Energy in Somerset on Hinkley Point C, has resumed in the hope of coming on line by 2019/2020. By December 2011 Ipsos Mori found that public support for new nuclear plants had returned to pre-accident levels, while in January 2012 a YouGov poll in Britain chose nuclear power as the best option from a list of nine infrastructure projects. In February, a joint statement from David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy declared a “shared determination to harness and manage nuclear energy in the safest and most effective and secure manner, covering the entire industrial system.”
Similarly, in October 2011 the Czech Republic formally invited tenders for two reactors at Temelín, while commercial bids have been submitted for Finland’s fifth reactor with a decision expected in 2013. The Russian Federation remains enthusiastically committed to more nuclear. India’s minister for power, Sushil Kumar Shinde, said in February that “nuclear has several distinct advantages, including that it is compact and highly manageable in terms of transportation and fuel; it is greener than all other forms of power generation.” China, though scaling back its plans a little from pre-Fukushima levels, still envisages some 70 new nuclear plants operating by 2020. Potential entrants like Poland and the United Arab Emirates have confirmed their determination to press ahead.
In a second group of countries things are less clear. In February, Steven Chu, the US Energy Secretary, confirmed that nuclear power was a vital part of the energy mix, after safety regulators gave permission for two new reactors at the Vogtle site in Georgia. But talk of imminent new build has been heard for a decade in the US without resulting in orders, and the rise of shale gas is affecting the attractiveness of nuclear investment. In the Netherlands plans for a second reactor at Borssele have been shelved for two to three years, though safety concerns were not cited among the reasons.
At the other extreme, plans for new reactors have been rejected and in some cases the fortunes of existing plants have worsened. The Italians turned down a return to nuclear power in a referendum during the last months of the Berlusconi premiership, while the Swiss government abandoned referendum plans to promote new build and announced a long-term phase-out of existing plants (though in effect at the end of their natural lifetimes), as did the Belgians.
The starkest negative reactions have been seen in Japan and Germany. Before the earthquake Japan had plans to expand its nuclear industry, with 14 new plants proposed and two under construction to add to the 54 reactors then operating. After the accident these plans were in effect abandoned, and the burning issue at present is whether plants which have been taken offline for their annual inspection will be allowed to restart, the decision lying with the local prefect rather than with the regulators.
In Germany an immediate decision was taken to abandon plans for new build, close the oldest seven reactors at once and phase the others out by 2022. This was a reaction that some commentators suggested was influenced by the fear (subsequently realised, most spectacularly in Baden-Württemberg) of the Green party making major gains in state elections later that month. In 2010 nuclear power accounted for 22 per cent of Germany’s electricity, and replacing it is a challenge. In practice, though renewables are being talked up, much will come from imports (ironically of nuclear electricity from France and elsewhere) and from a major programme of new gas and coal-fired plants with significant implications for Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The range of responses to Fukushima serves to re-emphasise how important are political and social factors to the development of this technology. Little has changed with regard to the fundamentals of energy production—global demand continues to grow rapidly, most dramatically in countries like China and India; hydrocarbon reserves are limited (though shale gas may give methane an extended lifetime) and have complex geopolitics; greenhouse gas emissions continue to expand frighteningly, up globally some 47 per cent since 1990; and the inherent intermittency of renewables is creating challenges that still have not been solved on a large scale. Nuclear power remains one of the few proven technologies that can have a real impact in addressing these problems; the robustness of public opinion in many countries, perhaps most notably Britain, suggests that these advantages are widely recognised.