Fukushima's Impact on Nuclear Power

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. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer and our timeline.

Even as crews continue their heroic efforts to stabilize Japan’s troubled Fukushima Dai-1 Nuclear Power Station, the effects of the crisis are rippling through the global nuclear industry. The industry might not shrink, but the emergency has put on pause many countries’ nuclear power revival plans.

After two decades of decline sparked by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, nuclear power had been on its way back in recent years. Burgeoning energy use and concerns over climate change and energy safety had prompted governments to recognize nuclear as a source of safe, clean electricity. Even countries that had banned nuclear power or halted new reactor construction had been rethinking their policies. But Japan’s nuclear emergency has reignited the nuclear debate, especially in Europe.

Most clearly hit are the nuclear revivals in Germany and Switzerland. On March 14, German chancellor Angela Merkel temporarily shut down the country’s seven oldest nuclear power plants. Just last year, the government had made the highly unpopular decision to keep all of its 17 plants operating for another 12 years. Officials now say the decision will be held off until at least June while safety checks are carried out.

Switzerland has suspended its plans to build and replace nuclear plants. Authorities there had approved three new plants, but Swiss energy minister Doris Leuthard announced on March 14 that the approvals won’t be granted until experts have reassessed the safety standards at existing plants.

Italy has also put on hold its plans to build new nuclear plants. Ten percent of Italy's electricity comes from nuclear, all imported. In May 2009, Silvio Berlusconi’s government revoked the country’s nuclear moratorium, but voting for a referendum on construction of four new power plants is set for sometime between April and June. Italy’s strong anti-nuclear movement, bolstered by the country’s regular seismic activity, might not bode well for the industry.

Sweden and Finland are abiding by their nuclear policies, but are thinking twice about their long term plans for nuclear expansion. Sweden ended its nuclear ban in June 2010, and Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has said in a press conference in Lithuania that the decision still stands. Finland, which is building its fifth reactor and has approvals for two more, plans to continue with these projects.

In the UK, where nuclear power faces considerable public opposition, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne ordered an official investigation to determine what London can learn from the Japanese nuclear crisis.

Most anti-nuclear sentiment in Europe is coming from countries that were already hesitant about nuclear energy and didn’t rely on it too much. Germany, for example, gets only a quarter of its electricity from nuclear; Italy has no nuclear power plants of its own. By comparison, France gets 75 percent, Slovakia 53 percent and Belgium 51 percent. There has been no outcry against nuclear energy in these countries. Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey all intend to build new nuclear power plants.

In Asia, which is today the center of nuclear growth, the big players seem determined to carry on with their nuclear ambitions albeit with caution. China, which has 27 units under construction and has plans to build 50 reactors by 2020, issued a statement on March 14 reaffirming its nuclear ambition. On March 16, the country announced that it was suspending new plant approvals and stepping up safety inspections at existing plants.

India and South Korea, which are both constructing five reactors, also plan to forge ahead. At the same time, the Indian Nuclear Power Corporation’s chairman told Bloomberg News that Japan’s emergency could be a “big dampener” on his country’s nuclear program. And in South Korea, anti-nuclear voices are getting louder. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signed an agreement with Belarus on March 15 to build Belarus’s first nuclear plant.

Here in the United States, Obama still sees nuclear power as a part of the country’s energy future. The country’s 104 operating nuclear plants generate 20 percent of its electricity and nuclear power is making a strong comeback after a slump in the late 1990s. Some members of Congress, though, are now advocating a reassessment, and the industry faces some uncertainty.

Japan’s disaster has clearly brought to light that nuclear power is a divisive issue. But it has also shown that most everyone agrees on one thing: a high standard for nuclear safety. At the European Energy Council meeting in Brussels yesterday, ministers decided to develop a “stress test” for nuclear power plants in the EU.

This post was updated on 3/24/2011. The sentence about Italy having no nuclear power plants was revised for clarity.

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