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Resident of Fukushima Diiachi is checked for radiation.
Tens of thousands of residents near the three destroyed nuclear reactors had to be evacuated, but not before being checked for radiation contamination.

Fukushima Disaster Signals Decline of Nuclear Power

Japan and Germany abandoning nuclear power in wake of meltdown.

By J. Matthew Roney

Reprinted from Earth Policy Institute Plan B Update

On May 5, 2012, Japan shut down its Tomari 3 nuclear reactor on the northern island of Hokkaido for inspection, marking the first time in over 40 years that the country had not a single nuclear power plant generating electricity. The March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown shattered public confidence in atomic energy, thus far making it politically impossible to restart any of the reactors taken offline. And the disaster’s legacy has spread far beyond Japan. Some European countries have decided to phase out their nuclear programs entirely. In other countries, nuclear plans are proceeding with caution. But with the world’s fleet of reactors aging, and with new plants suffering construction delays and cost increases, it is possible that world nuclear electricity generation has peaked and begun a long-term decline. Prior to the Fukushima crisis, Japan had 54 reactors providing close to 30 percent of its electricity, with plans to increase this share to more than 50 percent by 2030. But nuclear power dropped to just 18 percent of Japan’s electricity over the course of 2011. When the quake and tsunami hit, 16 reactors had already been temporarily shut down for inspections or maintenance; another 13 underwent emergency shutoffs, including the four Fukushima Daiichi reactors now permanently shut down. Others were subsequently closed due to earthquake vulnerability or for regular inspection. Now that Tomari 3 is offline, all 44,200 megawatts of Japan’s nuclear capacity that are listed as “operational” by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are in fact idle with no set date for restart.

Next to Japan, the most dramatic shift in nuclear energy policy following Fukushima occurred in Germany. Within days of the disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany’s seven oldest reactors, all built before 1980, would shut down immediately. And in May 2011, the government declared that Germany would phase out nuclear entirely by 2022. Nuclear power generated 18 percent of the country’s electricity in 2011, down from 24 percent in recent years and well below the peak in 1997 of 31 percent.

Across the Arab world, grain production is stagnating, yet grain demand is growing rapidly as population expands. Since 1960, the region’s population has nearly quadrupled to 360 million. By 2050 the region is projected to add another 260 million people, dramatically increasing pressure on already stressed land and water resources.

Just before Germany’s phaseout decision, Switzerland abandoned plans for three new reactors that were going through the approval process. The government also announced that all five of the country’s reactors—which for years had provided some 40 percent of its electricity—will close permanently as their operating licenses expire over the next 22 years. Italy, which had discontinued its nuclear program after the infamous 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, had in 2010 decided to restart it. But in a June 2011 referendum, more than 90 percent of Italian voters chose to ban nuclear power. Later in 2011, Belgium announced plans to phase out the seven reactors that provide more than half of the country’s electricity. Even in France, with a world-leading 77 percent of its electricity coming from nuclear power, newly elected President François Hollande has said he intends to reduce this share to roughly 50 percent by 2025.

According to IAEA data, 13 reactors with a combined 11,400 megawatts were permanently shut down in Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom in 2011. Seven new reactors totaling 4,000 megawatts were connected to the grid—three in China and one each in India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia—with less than 1,000 megawatts added through increasing, or “uprating,” existing nuclear plant capacities. As of May 2012, after two new reactor connections in South Korea and two permanent U.K. shutdowns, the world’s 435 operational nuclear reactors total 370,000 megawatts of capacity. Actual nuclear electricity generation in 2011 fell to 2,520 terawatt-hours, 5 percent below the 2006 peak.

The growth in nuclear generating capacity had slowed to a crawl well before the Fukushima disaster. From 1970 to 1986, cumulative capacity grew at a brisk 19 percent annual rate. Even after Chernobyl, nuclear power capacity grew at 4 percent a year until 1990. But since then the annual growth rate has been just 0.7 percent. (See data)

In contrast to the backlash in places like Japan and Germany, a number of countries reaffirmed their commitment to nuclear power, while indicating that safety would be a priority. This includes the three countries building the most new reactors: China (with 26 reactors under construction), Russia (11), and India (7). Immediately after the Fukushima incident, China suspended its reactor approval process to review the safety of existing plants, but the government has since indicated that the 26,600 megawatts under construction will move forward. Russia still intends to double its nuclear generating capacity by 2020, and India plans to increase its capacity 14-fold to 63,000 megawatts by 2032.

Of the 62 reactors the IAEA lists as under construction, only 15 have a projected date for connecting to the grid. (Not one of China’s 26 units under construction does.) Some of these reactors have been listed this way for more than 20 years. A prime example is the only U.S. reactor under construction, the Watts Bar 2 unit in Tennessee, which started construction in 1972. In April 2012, the startup date was moved from August 2012 to sometime in 2015, as the estimated cost rose 68 percent.

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