Reactor reaction: 5 countries joining Japan in rethinking nuclear energy
It can hardly come as a surprise that embattled Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced today his country would move away from nuclear fuel and toward renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and biomass. After all, the March 11 earthquake and tsunami brought the country to the brink of nuclear disaster. And the area around ...
It can hardly come as a surprise that embattled Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced today his country would move away from nuclear fuel and toward renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and biomass. After all, the March 11 earthquake and tsunami brought the country to the brink of nuclear disaster. And the area around the Fukushima nuclear plant remains a no-go zone four months later (check out this ebook from Foreign Policy on Japan’s post-Fukushima future). Anti-nuclear sentiment has grown ever since — making it a major political issue.
There are legitimate questions, nevertheless, about whether Japan could actually shift away from nuclear power. Japan is incredibly dependent on nuclear energy — the country’s 54 nuclear reactors account for 30 percent of its electricity; pre-earthquake estimates noted that the share to grow to 40 percent by 2017 and 50 percent by 2030. The prime minister today offered few details on how he’ll transition away from nuclear reliance.
Japan joins a list of nuclear countries that have grown increasingly skittish about the controversial energy source since the disaster in March.
Germany announced plans in late May to close all the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022 — making it the largest industrialized nation to do so. Nuclear power supplies 23 percent of its energy grid. Since the Japan disaster it has permanently shuttered eight plants (including the seven oldest in the country). That leaves nine plants to go — six of which, the government announced, will close up by 2021.
This isn’t the first time Germany tried to shutter its nuclear plants. The previous center-left government had a similar plan, though it was reversed last September by Chancellor Angela Merkel and her coalition, which said the technology was still necessary. Fukushima changed all that.
The country plans to make up the difference by cutting energy usage by 10 percent, it said, with more energy efficient appliances and buildings and to increase the use of wind energy.
No neutrality here — the government announced in May it too was taking a side against nuclear technology, in response to Japan’s disaster. Nuclear energy accounts for roughly 40 percent of Switzerland’s energy supply. Its five nuclear reactors won’t fully be phased out, experts estimate, until 2040.
The move is popular with the Swiss citizens — 20,000 of whom demonstrated against the technology before the government’s decision.
Last month, Silvio Berlusconi’s plans to return Italy to the nuclear club were dashed by a referendum that found 90 percent of Italians rejected the technology.
As a result the embattled prime minister said, “We shall probably have to say goodbye to nuclear [energy].” He noted that the government will instead shift its energies to developing renewable energy sources.
Berlusconi had been trying to reconstitute an industry that was already abandoned once before — back in 1987. Currently there are no nuclear plants, but the prime minister hoped to get nuclear power to account for a quarter of the country’s energy needs and planned to begin building new plants by as early as 2013.
Despite the fact that nuclear energy only accounts for less than 5 percent of the market in Mexico, which has only one plant, a recent worldwide survey found that Mexico was one of the most anti-nuclear countries in the world, with about 80 percent of its population opposing the power source. That doesn’t bode well for future nuclear development.
Mexico is one of only three Latin American nations that uses nuclear power. And last year the country delayed a decision until at least 2012 on whether to go ahead with plans to build 10 more plants, according to the country’s energy minister.
President Felipe Calderon has said he’d push to make sure “clean energy” accounts for at least 35 percent of the country’s energy needs.
Let’s be clear, France is unlikely to ditch nuclear power completely anytime soon. A longtime champion of the technology, it accounts for 75 percent of the country’s energy needs. But there are indications political leaders are falling out of love — ever so slightly — with the power source. On Friday, July 8 the government launched a study of energy technologies that included one potential scenario of completely doing away with nuclear power by 2040. It’s the first time the government has ever even mentioned the possibility. A more likely result of the study will be cutting the nuclear share of the market. Indeed, France has increased its investment in wind energy lately.
The government is likely responding to growing public pressure to do away with nuclear energy. A recent BBC survey found 57 percent of French respondents opposed the technology.