Nuclear future on balance: world has not responded to Fukushima, Europe has

nuclear energy scienceAnd of course Japan has too – as suffering such damage demands a general policy reevaluation.

Apparently different political systems apply different forms of logic, a new report states. But we have just one investment market…

The different reasoning leads to differing responses to a sudden and unpredictable incident, like the Fukushima disaster, which was caused by the devastating tsunami along the northeast coast of Japan´s Honshu island following the strongest earthquake ever to have hit the country – with a magnitude of 9.0 Richter at the offshore epicentre – on March 11 2011.

Radioactive pollution is an intrinsic risk to conventional nuclear power. But the direct cause of the Fukushima accident is not. Such flooding and damage to surrounding infrastructure can only happen to coastal nuclear plants in earthquake and tsunami-prone areas.

Therefore most countries that use (or want to use) nuclear for power generation have not significantly adjusted their energy policies following the incident.

Since however the global energy investment market is interconnected the influence of those countries that have changed course may tip a balance – and whether the ‘nuclear renaissance’ energy analysts were certain of just a couple of years back will actually progress now seems uncertain.

This is how the subreport Nuclear energy 2011: A watershed year of the new Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists can be summarised.

Is Europe pulling the world’s nuclear plug?

The most dramatic response came from Germany, where the government decided to phase out all 17 nuclear power plants – after which Switzerland and Italy decided likewise. Other European countries, like France and Belgium may also reassess their policy.

As of course these measures do not influence general power demand new energy sources are required – and the majority of these will not be zero carbon. In case of Germany for instance shutting down 20GW of nuclear will likely translate to 11GW of extra coal and 5GW of new gas-powered plants. [If climate is your main concern you may just pile these on the big fossil heap – gas is only better in theory.]

Most new reactors are however being built in China and elsewhere in Asia where over the course of 2011 previously outlined nuclear energy strategies were not switched – although safety has been ‘reassessed’.

Author and nuclear expert Mark Hibbs thinks however that the response of Japan and a couple of West-European countries may determine the global nuclear energy future:

“China and South Korea will continue on their own to add reactors, but the financial markets that set the pace for investment decisions in the United States would become still less enthusiastic if Europe joins Japan in putting nuclear projects on hold.”

He continues it may also pull the plug for nuclear innovation:

“Nuclear advocates have argued that a steady and robust increase in nuclear power generation would build public confidence and generate revenues needed to make the transition to a more advanced nuclear technology base that deploys fast reactors and complex fuel cycles. But if a major expansion doesn’t happen worldwide, it’s hard to see how the transition to a commercially viable, advanced technology will take place except on paper.”

Renewable naivety and other grave underestimations

In times of economic recession there is little reason to assume that phasing out nuclear capacity will automatically generate compensating investment flows in the development of forms of renewable energy – although that is probably what the anti-nuclear lobby is hoping for – and we of course with them.

Because wouldn’t it be planet-saving to see the total installed capacity of, say geothermal, increase ten- to twentyfold over the coming decades?

No. Indeed. It wouldn’t be.

The people at the IEA really don’t care whether it is going to be nuclear or renewable energy, as long as their combined share reaches 38 percent in just 13 years time.

In other words: we’ll be needing each and every windmill and solar panel – and we cannot afford to shut down any existing zero carbon energy source up to its last breath – especially if that would imply building new coal plants, because the same 450 Scenario requires Peak Coal in just 8 years from now.

© Rolf Schuttenhelm |

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