Nuclear Reactions: Six Months After Fukushima, the World Readjusts

"Nuclear power is safe and nuclear power is clean and nuclear power is renewable." -- President George W. Bush, September 4, 2006

Since the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear disaster, politicians, business executives and investors around the world have cooled on the prospects of nuclear energy. Last month, Siemens AG, the German technology giant that had been involved in the nuclear sector for decades, announced that it was abandoning its nuclear business and would be ramping up its work in renewable energy. "The chapter is closed for us," CEO Peter Löscher told the German news magazine Spiegel. "We will no longer be involved in managing the building or financing of nuclear plants," said Löscher, who expressed confidence that Germany would achieve its goal of generating 35 percent of its energy through natural energy sources by 2020.


The announcement followed an endorsement in May by German chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition to approve a landmark plan to shut down all nuclear power plants by 2022, which would bring an end to an industry that provides the nation with a quarter of its energy. "We believe we as a country can be a trailblazer for a new age of renewable energy sources," said Merkel. "We can be the first major industrialised country that achieves the transition to renewable energy with all the opportunities -- for exports, development, technology, jobs -- it carries with it."

Just a few days before Germany's announcement, Switzerland announced it too would be phasing out of nuclear energy, abandoning plans to build new reactors with a full exit by 2034. The long phase-out will allow ample time to find a suitable replacement for the energy produced by its five reactors, which supplies the country with 40 percent of its power.

"Many environmental groups are fundamentally opposed to the notion that nuclear power is a renewable form of energy -- on the grounds that it produces harmful waste byproducts and relies on extractive industries to procure fuel like uranium," writes James Kanter on the enviroment blog of The New York Times. "Even so, the nuclear industry and pro-nuclear officials from countries including France have been trying to brand the technology as renewable, on the grounds that it produces little or no greenhouse gases. Branding nuclear as renewable could also enable nuclear operators to benefit from some of the same subsidies and friendly policies offered to clean energies like wind, solar and biomass."


But as Kanter noted, the nuclear industry was dealt a blow in 2009 when Hélène Pelosse, who was the interim director general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) at the time, told Reuters that the agency, which advises 148 member countries and the European Union on renewable energy policy, "will not support nuclear energy programs because it's a long, complicated process, it produces waste and is relatively risky." Pelosse made it clear that she doesn't consider nuclear energy to be renewable, saying that "renewable energy is a better alternative and a faster, less expensive alternative, especially with countries blessed with so much sun for solar plants."

Mark Cooper, Senior Research Fellow for Economic Analysis at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School, said that following the Fukushima meltdown, investors consider nuclear power 25 percent less attractive. Indeed, nuclear stocks took a severe beating after the disaster, with some companies experiencing more than 20 percent in losses). Still, the current overall state of the nuclear sector looks relatively stable, at least for now. Germany's phase-out will take more than a decade. Cameco Corp., the world's biggest producer of uranium, for example, recently made a USD 530 million bid to acquire Hathor Exploration Ltd., a Canadian-based uranium exploration company. Bloomberg News said that the deal "is showing that the nuclear future is now."


In July, the Hidankyo, the group that represents the some 50,000 living survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, made its first-ever appeal for Japan to end civilian nuclear power, calling for an end to the construction of new plants and a phasing out of the nations 54 reactors. Considering their personal experiences during the WWII atomic bombings, the Hidanko wields a particular authority on the subject on nuclear power.

"The bureaucracy, industry and the media were able to shut our eyes to the danger of nuclear power," said Hirotami Yamada, the secretary general of the Nagasaki chapter of Hidankyo. "They convinced us that nuclear power was different from nuclear bombs," the 80-year-old Yamada, who was in his teens when Nagasaki was bombed, told The New York Times. "Fukushima showed us that they are not so different."



image: Chernobyl nuclear power plant, October 29, 2007 (credit: Mond, Wikimedia Commons)