Fukushima’s positive legacy

Few countries have pushed forward with nuclear power programmes after Fukushima. Tim Ireland/PA

Just over two years after the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in eastern Japan in March 2011, public attitudes worldwide remain hardened against nuclear power.

It may have fallen from the high of 62% opposed, as reported in a 24-country survey carried out by Ipsos in May 2011, where in some countries opposition ran as high as 80%, but in many countries the public mood is set.

One major exception is the UK, where the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is hoping for a major expansion of 16GW of new nuclear power stations. At the same time, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and even France are moving in the opposite direction, while Austria, Denmark, Ireland and others have retained their staunchly anti-nuclear stance.

However, a recent Ipsos-MORI poll found that support in the UK for building new nuclear power plants at 42%, a fall of 8% in the last year. While there has been no corresponding groundswell of opposition, the undecided proportion has risen to 38%, up 8% since 2011, and the highest figure in a decade.

A similar story is found in France, where after Fukushima anti-nuclear sentiment ran at 60-70% in some polls, and a socialist government was elected on a promise to consider phasing out nuclear power. The most recent poll suggests a levelling of views, with a full third “hesitant” or undecided, and two-fifths felt France should reduce its nuclear base. A decision is due soon, and is likely to be based on economic issues, not safety.

What I think has happened is that, at least within Europe, initial concerns over safety have abated due in part to the passage of time, but also due to the absence of obvious radiation-related health impacts from Fukushima. This may be shortsighted, given that it takes decades for cancers to form. Reactor safety issues, which had before Fukushima been fairly low on the agenda but come to the fore, have dropped back down again, overtaken by economic woes and problems of energy security.

It has become fairly clear that nuclear power is expensive and is becoming more so. It seems to be one of the few technologies where costs are rising, instead of falling as rival technologies are. Talk of “negative learning curves” has been reinforced by the dramatic cost escalations of the European Pressurised Water Reactors under construction in France and Finland.

At the same time the spectacle of Germany abandoning nuclear energy in preference for renewables has led to a renewed conviction that alternative approaches are possible. Many dozens of studies have emerged suggesting that it would be possible for most countries in the EU and indeed the world to meet nearly all of their electricity needs from renewable sources by 2050. This idea no longer seem utopian. Germany is aiming for 80% by 2050, while Denmark aims to be 100% zero carbon by then. In a major 2012 poll across the EU, 70% supported renewables as being the top energy priority, while only 18% backed nuclear. In Portugal, Austria, Spain, German and Denmark, support for renewables was at over 80%.

Outside Europe the situation is different. Japan closed all of its nuclear plants after Fukushima, but two have now restarted and some more may follow - despite massive public opposition. But Japan has a major renewables programme planned that includes offshore wind farms.

China halted its programme of building nuclear power plants after Fukushima. But while it has now restarted less ambitiously, it is dwarfed by the country’s huge expansion into renewable power, with around 70GW of wind power capacity already in place. China aims to generate 15% of its primary energy from non-fossil sources by 2020. This will mostly come from renewables, which currently supply over 17% of its electricity. Nuclear power supplies around 2% of electricity at present, reaching 6% by 2020.

The Indian government remains strongly committed to nuclear, despite massive local opposition, but is also ramping up its renewable generation. The situation is similar in South Korea. Two new nuclear plants are being built in the US, but as in the UK, old plants are closing and the expansion programme shows signs of faltering. Energy output from renewables has overtaken that from nuclear in the US.

The Fukushima disaster seems to have acted as a trigger, catalysing states to take a new approach towards energy generation worldwide. One of the few countries that seems immune is Russia which, despite its huge renewable energy resources, has set itself a low target of generating 4% of its electricity from renewables by 2020.

In most other countries, a change was already underway, and although Fukushima caused massive social and economic disruption in Japan - and it will be decades before the $200 billion clean up is finished - the meltdowns of three reactors in one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world may have helped provide an extra push towards the more sustainable, renewable path that leads forward.