Germany and Japan Back Away from Nuclear

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

In the last days, the two countries usually described as the world's third and fourth largest economies have taken steps that may signal the ultimate end of their reliance on nuclear energy. Yesterday Japan's beleaguered prime minister said his government would drop plans to build 14 more nuclear power plants; with plants already being taken offline in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe, the economic and political ramifications are sure to be very far-reaching. Meanwhile, Germany's government is being advised in a draft report by a panel it appointed to really exit from nuclear energy by the next decade, rather than exit from the exit, which is what Chanceller Angele Merkel would have preferred pre-Fukishima.

It was never particularly obvious why Germany would have built one of its first atomic power plants, Biblis (above), at a scenic spot right on the Rhine River. So it was rather a foregone conclusion after Fukushima that such plants would soon be shuttered for good. But it was not a foregone conclusion that the government would decide to eventually close down all plants and never build any new ones.

Because the political impact of Fukushima will play out over years, it will not be surprising if ultimately Japan's nuclear phobia prevails and the country decides to opt out of nuclear energy completely, following in Germany's steps.

For the record, Japan and Germany are not actually the world's third and fourth largest economies, China is not second, and the United States is not first. In strictly economic terms, the world's largest economy by a wide margin is the European Union; the United States is second, China third, and Japan fourth. The import and impact of Germany's and Japan's turning their backs on nuclear energy is not to be minimized; it is huge. But nor should it be overdone. Germany is the largest state in Europe, but it is not all of Europe. France, Sweden, and Finland remain highly committed to nuclear power, and that is not likely to change. Germany's decision to gradually stop producing nuclear electricity and adopt an all-green energy strategy is comparable to California's. It will have influence in European states that are undecided about nuclear, but not in those that have firmly made up their minds one way or the other.

Fukushima's impact in Asia will be similar. It's not likely to dissuade China and South Korea from sticking with plans to sharply increase reliance on nuclear energy. But in countries like India, which are wavering, its influence could be considerable.

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