Did Fukushima Quash the Global “Nuclear Renaissance”?

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Although the March 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan gave many pause about nuclear power, it didn’t deter a number of countries who were already well on their way implementing plans for their nuclear future. The global “nuclear renaissance,” says Federation of American Scientists President Charles Ferguson, is far from over; with a few notable exceptions.

Japan

Prior to the earthquake and tsunami, Japan had 54 nuclear reactors that supplied the country with about 30 percent of its electricity; its first reactor began operating in 1966. About two-thirds of the public was in favor of nuclear prior to the quake, Charles Ferguson told FRONTLINE; after the accident he says “it was on the order of maybe 25 to 30 percent at most.”

In May 2011, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced the end of Japan’s nuclear program, telling the country in a speech that it needs to “start from scratch” to rethink its energy policy. This meant abandoning plans to build 14 new reactors and increase the country’s nuclear energy generation to 50 percent by 2030

More than half of Japan’s nuclear reactors were out of commission by August 2011; currently only six reactors are operational. While Japan consumes “about half as much energy per capita as the United States,” it imports about 84 percent of its energy requirements, so the shutdown of its nuclear plants has left a void in domestic production.

In part, the country has tried to make up for this shortage by rationing electricity, with the government pushing last August for a 15 percent cut in electricity use in Tokyo during the day. And Japan is looking toward renewables for future energy production, with the prime minister advocating 20 percent electricity generation by environmentally friendly means like solar and wind.

More recently, the local government in Tokyo pushed for a natural gas facility that could help replace the electricity once generated by nuclear — and could weaken the reach of the Tokyo Electric Power Company [TEPCO], Fukushima’s owner. Reformers are hoping “to finally break the linchpin of the collusion between business and government that once drove Japan’s rapid postwar rise, but that now keeps it mired in stagnation,” explained Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler in The New York Times.

But it won’t be easy — and chances for reform are slowly slipping away. The two Times reporters explain that TEPCO “rivals the American defense industry in its domestic reach” and is “one of the biggest sources of loosely regulated cash for politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen, who have repaid TEPCO with unquestioning support and with the type of lax oversight that contributed to the nuclear crisis.” And despite the post-Fukushima push for reforms from Prime Minister Naoto Kan, his successor Yoshihiko Noda, has “joined the old guard to rally around nuclear power.”

Japan is still in the business of exporting nuclear: In October 2011, Japan and Vietnam announced they are moving forward with plans to build two Japanese reactors in the Ninh Thuan province. Other countries that have shown interest in Japanese reactors are China, Turkey, Lithuania and the U.S.

But experts estimate that all of Japan’s domestic reactors will be shut down by May 2012.

For more on how the meltdown at Fukushima is affecting those displaced, listen to this series of reports from The World’s Marco Werman. Also take a look at our recent film The Atomic Artists, which profiles one group of young artists taking a stand against nuclear power.

China

While Japan is pulling back on nuclear power, its neighbor is doing the exact opposite. As Spencer Reiss points out in a 2009 article in Wired, there’s a pretty good reason for this: China is the most energy-hungry nation on earth, “staring at the dark side of double-digit growth,” with regular blackouts due to “a decade of breakneck industrialization.” But by the end of 2010, nuclear power accounted for a mere 1.1 percent of China’s electricity generation. The majority of China’s energy comes from coal.

In 2008, the country announced plans to build up to 30 new nuclear reactors — it currently has 14 in operation. While China underwent a brief pause after the meltdown at Fukushima, all signs point to a robust commitment to nuclear going forward. In the weeks after Fukushima, The New York Times reported on a new type of reactor China is attempting to build using “hundreds of thousands of billiard-ball-sized fuel elements” coated with graphite instead of fuel rods. According to the Times, “the coating moderates the pace of nuclear reactions and is meant to ensure that if the plant had to be shut down in an emergency, the reaction would slowly stop on its own and not lead to a meltdown.”

And the country is poised to work with Terrapower, a Bill Gates firm, to research and build a fourth-generation reactor. China’s plans for onlining a third-generation reactor, the Westinghouse AP1000, are on schedule for 2013. (The World Nuclear Association has a comprehensive guide to these new types of reactors.) Unlike in the U.S., the Chinese government owns and operates the majority of reactors.

Germany

Germany is tabling nuclear power; while Fukushima certainly didn’t help matters, the country had already decided to move forward with new sources of energy before the disaster. Charles Ferguson points out that much of Germany’s opposition is driven by the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl.

Until March 2011, Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors generated one-quarter of the country’s electricity. After Fukushima, eight reactors were immediately shut down, with the remaining nine scheduled to be shut down within a decade.

So how is Germany going to make up the difference as it transitions to renewables? The answer — coal — alarms many climate scientists. NASA’s James Hansen told FRONTLINE that Germany’s hasty decision could end up exacerbating climate change; other analysts suggest the move could “result in about 400 million tons of extra carbon emissions by 2020.”

And what about the cost? A recent Reuters article estimates that ending Germany’s nuclear program could cost “1.7 trillion euros ($2.15 trillion) by 2030, or two thirds of the country’s GDP in 2011, according to Siemens, which built all of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants.”

For more on Germany’s transition to renewables, watch chapter four of Nuclear Aftershocks.

France

Historically the French have loved nuclear power. No, really — see this bucolic romp through the French countryside courtesy of our 1997 film Nuclear Reaction (and read more about the history of nuclear power in France).

More than 75 percent of France’s electricity is derived from nuclear, and France is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity. At the time of the accident at Fukushima, France had 58 nuclear facilities, with another two under construction.

Fukushima, of course, changed some minds. In the months following the disaster, a poll found 57 percent of French citizens said the country should end its reliance on nuclear, and plans to build a new generation reactor were shelved temporarily this past July after two workers died in plant accidents. Unrelated but also cause for alarm was a July 2011 explosion at the Tricastin plant in Drôme only days after 32 safety concerns were uncovered at the facility.

After Fukushima, French President Nicolas Sarkozy promised to review all nuclear plants. But he steadfastly refused to consider eliminating nuclear power, calling such a move “out of the question.”

France — its state-controlled reactor maker Areva — is in the business of selling its nuclear technology around the world, and French Energy Minister Eric Besson told Reuters in October that he sees no signs of a slow market. In particular, the country is eying exports to two nuclear boom countries: China and India.

India

Like China, India has bold plans to increase its nuclear reactor fleet, aiming to supply 25 percent of its electricity from nuclear by 2050. (Right now it’s at about 3 percent.)

In part, of course, this has to do with meeting the energy needs of its growing population; according to India’s Atomic Energy Commission chair Srikumar Banerjee, almost 40 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people do not have regular electricity access.

India currently has 20 reactors and plans to spend about $150 billion in the coming years to boost its nuclear output.

Banerjee has tried to assure the public that an accident like Fukushima could not occur in India. There are some concerns, of course; one involves the Madras Atomic Power Station locaed along India’s coastline, which is prone to tsunamis. Another, reports Marco Werman for PRI’s The World, is the way the government is obtaining land to build ambitious nuclear complexes: by taking it from local farmers. A November 2011 Newsweek article examines the growing local protests against nuclear, including hunger strikes that caused the delay of a Russian-made reactor in “tsunami-prone” Tamil Nadu.

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