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Nuclear power's down but not out after Fukushima

Fission may suddenly be out of fashion. But the world cannot afford to scrap plans for advanced, new-generation reactors

The crisis at Japan's Fukushima-Daiichi plant has triggered a reassessment of nuclear energy safety. But many countries will find it hard to shun a technology that is pivotal to meeting electricity demand and cutting carbon emissions.

While the reactor withstood March's earthquake, shutting down as it was supposed to, the ensuing tsunami swamped the plant, causing the failure of the generators powering equipment designed to stop the radioactive core from overheating. The resulting radiation release, following a series of explosions, appeared to be relatively minor (at the time of writing), but has unsettled public sentiment towards nuclear power around the world.

Faced with long-term groundswell of opposition to nuclear power and the need to boost flagging support in seven state elections taking place this year, German leader Angela Merkel's government ordered a minimum three-month closure of the country's seven oldest operational reactors for tests, removing 7 gigawatts (GW) of capacity from the grid. China, which is developing the world's biggest nuclear energy programme, is suspending approvals for proposed plants while it reappraises safety issues. The Swiss government also suspended authorisation of three new plants for safety assessments.

In the UK, which is poised to build a new generation of nuclear plants, opinion polls show a drop in support for the technology. The energy ministry has asked its nuclear inspectorate to produce a report on the implications of the Japanese nuclear crisis – a draft is due in May. In the US, polls have also shown waning public support for nuclear power in the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami.

Meanwhile, Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's industry watchdog, has called for international nuclear safety standards to be strengthened, especially in regard to tsunami risk.

But a number of factors suggest that nuclear may not fall out of favour as it did after the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979 – another incident when a reactor teetered on the edge of meltdown in a similar way to Fukushima.

"The need for nuclear power then wasn't as sharp as it at the moment," says Malcolm Grimston, a nuclear-energy expert at Chatham House, a think tank. He notes that falling fossil-fuel prices soon after Three Mile Island and the rapid expansion of global gas production ensured there were ready alternatives to nuclear power available at a time when cutting carbon emissions was not a vital energy policy consideration.

Now, with global energy demand set to surge over the next three decades, nuclear power is a central part of energy policy in many countries, given its ability to produce huge amounts of power with next to no carbon emissions and, in the case of Europe at least, reduce dependence on handful of big gas suppliers, such as Russia and Qatar.

That much of the uranium feedstock can be sourced from politically stable countries such as Australia and Canada also makes nuclear an attractive option, from a geopolitical perspective.

China alone is planning or proposing to build around 160 reactors – with more than 160 GW of capacity – in addition to the 27 plants already under construction. India, Russia, the US, UK and Italy are among other nations for which nuclear power is set to be a crucial part of the energy mix (see Table 1). France has little choice but to keep its weight firmly behind nuclear, as it sources more than three-quarters of its electricity from such plants.

Even modest scaling back of global nuclear plans would risk putting big strains on other parts of the energy sector. While renewable energy is likely to make a significant contribution to world energy provision in coming decades, natural gas and coal will likely fill most of the gap in the shorter term if some countries trim their nuclear programmes or close existing reactors sooner than planned. That would only add to emissions and use up finite fossil-fuel resources faster.

Much is at stake for the companies building nuclear technology, such as France's Areva, Toshiba's Westinghouse subsidiary, Japanese firms Hitachi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and South Korea's Doosan. In the short-term, some of these firms are likely to find work patching up Japan's damaged nuclear infrastructure, but the real prize will be the lucrative contracts they may pick up in Europe, China, India and elsewhere. The industry will be keen to stress that nuclear reactor design has come a long way since the Fukushima plant was commissioned in 1971 and that safety issues concerning modern facilities are relatively few.

Chatham House's Grimston notes that the more modern Onagawa nuclear plant, built in the early 1980s, just to the north of the Fukushima facility, shut down as intended during the earthquake and tsunami. He argues that changes in technology, the rarity of an event of this magnitude and that most nuclear stations are not in earthquake zones or susceptible to tsunamis means that the accident does little to change the rationale for fission.

"On nuclear as part of the energy mix, the argument probably hasn't changed dramatically as a result of the tsunami, but it's very difficult to tell how it will pan out in public perception terms," he says.

If the concerns raised by the Fukushima crisis do not ease, then the spotlight on the blemishes in the nuclear industry's record will intensify. For example, the viability of the European pressurised reactor (EPR) being developed by Areva could come under closer scrutiny, given versions being built in both France and Finland have already been beset by delays and higher-than-expected costs.

But both the EPR and also the ATMEA medium-sized nuclear reactor being jointly developed by Areva and Mitsubishi use technology intended to allow the core of a nuclear reactor to be isolated in the event of a reactor meltdown.

Nuclear power may be certain to play an important role in global energy provision in the 21st century. How effective manufacturers and power providers are in allaying concerns and deflecting criticism over the next few months could determine just how big a role that will be.

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