March 22, 2011

Nuclear Energy after Fukushima: Same as it ever was?

As Christine
discussed in the new CNAS policy brief on Japan
, the crisis at the
Fukushima nuclear facilities may have ramifications for the future of nuclear
energy worldwide.  The question on
everyone’s mind is whether events in Japan will turn back the purported “nuclear renaissance” of recent

The results, so far, are mixed. Many countries have already
stated their intended positions: slowing the nuclear power advance; those who
are reviewing their nuclear goals; and those seeming to continue full speed

In the first category, a few countries have already vowed to
scale back nuclear energy programs significantly. Leading among them is Germany,
where Chancellor Angela Merkel called
for a “measured exit” from the nuclear energy field
, pledging to redouble the
country’s efforts to develop renewable energy sources to compensate for the
lost power generation. In addition, she temporarily
shut down the country’s seven oldest reactors
and decided to reassess
whether to extend the lives of Germany’s remaining reactors. However, some
have argued that Chancellor Merkel’s strong anti-nuclear stance is merely
political positioning
(given already low public opinion on her decision
last fall to extend the reactor permits) and will be reversed in short order once
public anxiety over the issue rescinds. 


Israel also seems to be changing its tune in the wake of
Japan’s nuclear crisis. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appearing
on the Piers Morgan show
, said that the world “should reconsider the expansion
of civilian nuclear energy” in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown. The Prime
Minister further acknowledged that Japan’s disaster “certainly caused me to
reconsider the projects of building civil nuclear power plants….I don't think
we're going to pursue civil nuclear energy in the coming years.” It’s worth
noting that
the huge natural gas reverses Israel recently discovered off its coast

appears to have given PM Netanyahu the flexibility to strongly denounce nuclear
energy. One may also assume that this is an opportune time for a public push
against Israel’s neighbors expanding into the nuclear energy realm, for
obviously security concerns.

Second, a larger number of countries have vowed to seriously
review their programs but nonetheless appear inclined to continue developing
nuclear energy. These include some of the Southeast Asian countries that just recently
began pursuing nuclear energy. For example, a spokesperson for the Thai
government, which
plans to build five nuclear plants by 2025
, has said that the situation in
Japan “raises some concerns” but was quick to note “these concerns are not

Similarly, Vietnam Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Vuong
Huu Tan has
assured the public that his country is monitoring the situation
in Japan
closely and pledged to use “advanced nuclear power technology” for the eight
nuclear plants Vietnam is currently planning on building. The UK also falls
into this category with Energy
Minister Chris Huhne saying that Japan
“undoubtedly casts a shadow over the
renaissance of the nuclear industry” but refusing to rule out the building of
new nuclear plants. In fact, according to the BBC, the
country’s planned nuclear reactors will continue on schedule.

China has taken a stance slightly stronger than these
countries. On the one hand, Beijing quickly suspended
the construction of new nuclear power plants
in the country. Still, this
moratorium is
likely to be short-lived. For example, Liu Tienan, the Chief
of China’s National Energy Bureau, posted
a statement online
urging “authorities to seriously analyze and summarize
lessons learned from Japan’s nuclear accident, to ensure the safe development
of nuclear power industry in the spirit of being responsible for the Party and
for the people.” One way in which China
is considering developing nuclear energy more safely is by using thorium
, a
material that is thought to be both less prone to disasters and not as damaging
should one occur.

Third, for several countries, the Japanese crisis doesn’t
seem to have shaken their faith in nuclear energy at all. One example is
Indonesia which, despite suffering a devastating tsunami itself in 2004, still plans to get
4 percent of its energy from nuclear sources by 2025
. Turkey, a country
prone to earthquakes, also will proceed with the construction of two nuclear power
plants. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan didn’t mince words when he
stated bluntly
, “We are not considering changes to our nuclear plans right
now, and suspension of nuclear talks is not something we are thinking about.”

Finally, despite President
Obama ordering a review of U.S. nuclear power plant
safety, the industry will likely continue to develop.
Indeed, last Friday the United
States signed an agreement with Chile
to help it develop its nuclear energy

The fact that so many global leaders appear ambivalent about
nuclear energy even in the midst of the crisis in Japan suggests that the
future of nuclear energy may remain as bright as it was before the
still-unfolding tragedy there. Instead of ending the nuclear renaissance, then,
the crisis in Japan is more likely to lead others to take more precautions and stronger safety
in developing their nuclear power systems. It is too early to tell
for sure, but a renaissance may still be in the offing.