The Morning After Fukushima
The Morning After Fukushima
BERLIN: Two months after the earthquake and nuclear accidents in Fukushima, the debates on the future of nuclear power continue unabated. The events in Japan mark a watershed that could clear the way for a globally sustainable structure in energy policies. The accidents in Fukushima have emphatically underscored that the dangers of nuclear energy cannot be controlled by human beings despite all the technological progress which has been made and all the safety precautions instituted.
While a shift in thinking can be seen in some countries, others unswervingly continue along the planned path of an expansion of nuclear energy. The most obvious indications of a rethinking are in Germany, where events in Japan have led to a paradigm shift: Only months earlier the government granted Germany’s 17 reactors a lifespan extension by an average of 12 years. But after the Fukushima accident, the government, bowing to large civilian protests, decided to freeze the new law for three months for a safety review. In addition, a six-point action plan was adopted on how to accelerate the switch from nuclear power with extra government subsidies mainly supporting offshore wind power and grid expansion. Other countries, such as Russia or France, have announced that they intend to carry on with expansions of nuclear power as planned. Over the medium term, this raises the question as to what extent Fukushima will have an impact on civil use of nuclear power around the world.
An even bigger surprise was the recent announcement of Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan to scrap nuclear power in favor of renewables. The country, currently obtaining about 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear, has abandoned plans to expand use of nuclear energy. Instead Kan declared the shutdown of 35 nuclear power plants and a massive expansion of renewables.
Recent discussion about an approaching global renaissance for nuclear power has actually been mostly talk. Apart from continuing announcements by a couple of countries such as China, India, Japan, Russia and the US which expressed their intentions to build dozens of new reactors and increase the share of nuclear energy in their national energy mix, nuclear power plays a minor role in worldwide energy supply so far. According to the International Energy Agency, or IEA, nuclear power accounted for 6 percent of primary energy production in 2008.
The relatively low share of nuclear energy is due to economic and environmental misgivings as well as safety and security risks. Many nuclear accidents such as the super meltdown in Chernobyl 25 years ago or smaller incidents over the last few decades illustrate that there are no safe reactors. Furthermore, no country in the world has developed a safe method of permanent storage for nuclear waste produced by civil nuclear energy generation in a form accepted by society. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), more than 2.8 million cubic meters of radioactive waste are produced each year in the world – a problem that would be exacerbated by the expansion of the nuclear energy industry. Emerging radiation from the Fukushima plant’s nuclear waste – with more than 50 tons of spent fuel rods stored next to each reactor, in addition to more than 60,000 metric tons of wastewater used to cool the reactors – added to the danger of melting core.
It is also disputed whether nuclear energy really constitutes a climate-friendly alternative to renewable energies: It’s true that a nuclear power plant does not produce any CO2 in operation. But if one takes into account the entire cycle of construction and operation all the way to decommissioning and, in particular, includes the mining of uranium and manufacture of fuel rods in the equation, greenhouse gases certainly are produced, as fossil-energy fuels are used for many of these processes. On top of this, the potential for reduction of CO2 emissions in this sector is not particularly high because of the low percentage of nuclear energy in global primary energy production. Considering these difficulties, nuclear energy should be considered an environmental dead-end instead of a contribution to climate protection.
From an economic perspective, the use of nuclear power is not a viable option. Nuclear energy is the most expensive way of producing electricity and economically viable in many countries only through various forms of open or hidden subsidies. In Germany, for example, subsidies for electrical power from nuclear power plants during 1950 to 2010 amounted to €304 billion, more than US$430 billion. In addition, associated liability insurance costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher energy prices. Another problem with nuclear power as an energy source over the long term is finite uranium resources: Forecasts on the estimated availability of proven uranium resources vary between 20 and barely 200 years.
Despite the obstacles, it’s nevertheless clear that many countries and, in particular, the rapidly growing newly industrializing economies are looking for ways to meet skyrocketing demand for energy. Since Fukushima, debates on expanding renewable energies instead of nuclear energy have intensified in many countries. In principle, energy coming from renewable resources such as hydro, biomass, wind, solar, geothermal and biofuels is available in sufficient quantities. Their exploitation is costly. In order to increase the share of renewable energies in national electricity production, governments must make a policy choice and be prepared to pay initial development costs through a combination of regulation, infrastructural improvements, research and development, as well as economic incentives.
Many countries have already set a good example, showing that the phase-out of nuclear energy and promotion of a sustainable energy supply can help develop the economy, serve as an engine of job-creation and mitigate climate change.
Frequently touted as a best-practice example is Germany: The introduction of the German Renewable Energies Act has led to a leap in the share of renewable energies from 0 to 16 percent in barely 10 years, adding economic gains as well as 360.000 new jobs.
India offers another example, creating one of the most vibrant renewable energy markets in the world. India has already taken a leadership role in the deployment of wind power and small hydropower and now seeks to do the same with solar power.
Plenty of government initiatives are also found in China, which has introduced energy-efficiency standards for new buildings, offered financial support for energy-efficient refurbishments and tax abatements for enterprises supporting green technologies.
Also noteworthy is the Tunisian Solar Energy Plan, which has already allowed the government to save $1.1 billion between 2005 and 2008 in energy bills, relative to initial investments of $200 million in clean-energy infrastructure.
Not least, feed-in tariffs for renewable energies, in place in a number of countries from Algeria to Kenya, or progressive electricity tariffs as in Japan or South Korea, where the price rises parallel to consumption, promote a sustainable energy supply.
At the international level, the disaster in Fukushima has once again shown that a global phase-out of atomic energy is urgently necessary. To promote a switchover toward sustainable energy, it’s necessary to invest in renewable energy sources and energy efficiency instead of traditional energies. Nuclear power is not a viable alternative for the future – the world needs an energy supply that’s not harmful to human beings and the environment and which will still be viable in several hundred years.