Nuclear debate - not just about stress tests
by Dr John Walls
Fukushima has focused minds on Europe's nuclear power strategy, but consensus on the way forward is still lacking – writes John Walls
The disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan following the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11, has exposed the fragility of the much touted "nuclear renaissance" in Europe.
Prior to the disaster, nuclear power had become an increasingly central component in the vision to create a low carbon energy system for Europe. Nuclear power was seen to be a potential weapon in the struggle to reduce carbon emissions in the battle against dangerous climate change. It would ensure energy security for the continent, so it was claimed.
France was held up as an example of what can be achieved in terms of emissions reductions when nuclear power forms a large part of the electricity supply. For, it generates 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power and emits 6.6 tonnes of CO2 per capita, compared with 10.4 tonnes per capita in Germany. The new build programme in Europe amounted to six reactors in four countries: Finland, France, Romania and Slovakia.
There were also countries, such as Italy and Sweden, who were considering the revival of mothballed nuclear programmes. Even in what has become a staunchly anti-nuclear country like Germany - which only a decade ago pledged a ''comprehensive and irreversible''
end to nuclear power - it was decided to extend the life of its existing reactors by an average of 12 years. Under this scenario nuclear power was to act as a bridge in order to allow renewable energy to eventually provide most of the country's energy needs by 2050.
But as a result of the Fukushima disaster, a number of countries have imposed some limits to existing and new reactor proposals. Germany, for example, is one of the most anti-nuclear countries in Europe and it has imposed a three-month moratorium on the reactor lifespan extension passed in 2010. As well as having temporarily shut down seven of its 17 reactors, Italy also imposed a one-year moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants.
Some countries, such as France and the UK, have tasked their regulatory authorities to investigate the disaster in order to learn lessons that can be applied to increasing the safety of domestic nuclear power plants - with a small number of countries, such as Slovakia, content to proceed with new nuclear build proposals. Following Fukushima, the International Energy Agency has halved its estimate of additional nuclear global generating capacity to be built by 2035. And the European council of ministers announced that there would be "stress tests" of all of the 143 nuclear plants within the European Union.
A recent report issued by UBS suggests that, at the very least, around 30 nuclear plants may have to close as a result of Fukushima. In particular, those in seismic zones or close to national boundaries - some of which are positioned in Europe. Public opinion on nuclear power in the aftermath of events in Japan highlights stark national differences. While the disaster has led to greater worry across the EU as a whole about the safety of nuclear power plants - with the exception of Germany, citizens there were broadly confident about the management of nuclear plants in their own country.
Indeed, 66 per net of Germans now oppose nuclear power, while just 19 per cent support it. The French are evenly split on the matter, at 36 per cent each, while the British are in favour by a margin of 35 per cent to 30 per cent but with a large percentage undecided. It is not just the public policy reactions in the aftermath of Fukushima that have imposed limits to nuclear power in Europe - but also the perennial problems of poor economics associated with nuclear, issues of how and where to store nuclear waste, bottlenecks in the supply of skilled labour and key materials as well as the existence of nuclear proliferation risks.
Although, the pressing need to combat climate change through promoting low carbon electricity means that nuclear power will not disappear from the public policy agenda as it did in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, 25 years earlier. There exists today a more diverse set of interests lobbying in favour of nuclear power, from prominent environmentalists such as James Lovelock and George Monbiot to government committees, such as the United Kingdom Committee on Climate Change - which in May, put forward the scenario according to which nuclear power could contribute 40 per cent of our electricity needs.
It is clear that the political impact of Fukushima on the existence of nuclear power in Europe is much greater than any concerns about radiological fallout. The likely prognosis is for a wide divergence in the future of nuclear power within Europe itself, as extreme as Germany moving toward a nuclear-free future emphasising renewable energy and France, with 75 per cent of its electricity coming from nuclear power, committed to nuclear energy for the foreseeable future.
Once the metaphorical dust has settled, the extent to which the much vaunted "nuclear renaissance" can gather pace, albeit now within a more limited set of countries, depends on whether new reactors can demonstrate better economics, improved safety, successful waste management and low proliferation risk. And whether public policies place a significant value on electricity production that does not produce carbon emissions. What is clear is that advocates of nuclear power, will now have to fight that much harder to convince policymakers and citizens alike that it can deliver on these key issues.
Dr John Walls is a lecturer in environmental geography at Birmingham University, in the UK