In the aftermath of Japan’s nuclear crisis following a devastating 9.0 earthquake, governments around the world have been forced to re-examine their policies on nuclear power. Their response has been highly mixed, ranging from total rejection to rapid expansion and development. Although nuclear power has been applauded by some environmentalists as a carbon-free alternative to oil and coal, the disaster in Japan has raised questions about its long-term safety and sustainability.
Germany announced on May 30 that it plans to completely abandon nuclear energy by 2022. Its 7 oldest reactors have already been shut down completely. The remaining 10 will be phased out gradually over the next 11 years to encourage the development of alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric power.
Following Germany’s decision, Italian voters rejected Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s proposal to lift the nation’s 23-year ban on nuclear power last Monday. The policy was enacted in 1986 in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, which affected millions of Ukrainian citizens and became known as the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history.
“We shall have to say goodbye to nuclear (energy),” Berlusconi stated, indicating that his government would now have to focus on developing renewable sources.
Switzerland has also announced plans to abandon its dependence on nuclear power. The government is currently examining a proposal to phase out all 5 of its nuclear plants by 2034.
Despite this progressive shift away from atomic power, some believe it is still the most viable alternative to carbon-emitting natural resources like oil and coal. They see nuclear power as a way to meet the rapidly growing global demand for energy without degrading the environment and draining the planet’s valuable resources.
Before the crisis in Japan, the Obama administration adopted a plan to build 100 new nuclear reactors on U.S. soil. The administration has expressed its intent to re-examine nuclear expansion in light of the disaster. However, it will be extremely difficult for the the world’s largest generator of atomic energy to reduce or abandon its dependence on nuclear power.
China is another major player that plans to continue to incorporate nuclear power in its developmental agenda. It currently derives around 66 percent of its energy from coal and hopes to tap into “cleaner” sources of energy in the future, including nuclear power. The nation has 13 reactor units in operation and 28 more under construction, accounting for 40 percent of the world’s planned reactors.
Yun Zhou, a postdoctoral fellow in nuclear security at the Harvard Belfer Center, stated that China needs to continue developing nuclear power if it wants to support rapid social and economic growth.
“China should be doing what is has been doing,” Zhou said. “With its population, with its economy, China needs to use nuclear power.”
However, Ms. Zhou expressed concern over the safety and stability of so many reactors being built in such a short period of time.
“The key issue is whether it [China] can maintain the safety record…They put a high priority on safety, but if you have 70 or 80 plants, that’s a different story.”
This issue of safety is paramount for any nation planning to continue to use nuclear power, especially in light of what happened at the Fukushima Daiichi plant last March. If something goes wrong as a result of natural disaster or human error, the release of deadly radiation can threaten the lives of human beings, damage the environment, poison food and water supplies, and cost governments billions in damages. Although nuclear power may indeed be “cleaner” than oil or coal, it comes with a hefty cost and should not replace initiatives for adopting more sustainable methods like solar, wind, or hydroelectric power.
Written By: Lucas Ryden