Atomic fallout: Global chill but nuclear not dead

With the recent announcement that Germany will shut down all of its 17 nuclear reactors by 2022 - a policy change the government attributed to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plan in Japan - nuclear experts are weighing in on the future of atomic energy.
Activists of the environmental organization Greenpeace have projected a slogan reading 'The lying continues' on one of the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant in central Germany on March 21, 2011. (Timur Emek/Associated Press)

With the recent announcement that Germany will shut down all of its 17 nuclear reactors by 2022 — a policy change the government attributed to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plan in Japan — nuclear experts are weighing in on the future of atomic energy.

For Shawn-Patrick Stensil of Greenpeace Canada, this is part and parcel of a slow decline in the industry.

"Fukushima is this generations' Chornobyl, and what we've seen since Fukushima is major industrial countries abandoning nuclear power and ramping up investment in green energy technology," he said.

In the wake of the meltdown in Japan, several European countries have been reconsidering their energy policies.

Switzerland, which gets 40 per cent of its power from nuclear, announced last week that it would close its reactors once they reached the end of their operational lives. The last would go offline in 2034.

Sweden's parliament is expected to debate the future of its five reactors next month.

A spokesman from the Nuclear Energy Institute, a pro-nuclear lobby group based in Washington, D.C., said Germany's decision would have no effect on the overall health of the industry. 

"I don't see any notable long-term implications," Steve Kerekes said. "I mean, Germany has been schizophrenic on nuclear energy for the better part of a decade."

Kerekes also said many countries are moving ahead with ambitious plans to develop atomic power, including South Korea, India and China. The latter has 87 reactors either under construction or in the planning stages, and another 110 under consideration.

Even Japan has said that it will continue to use nuclear power, though Prime Minister Naoto Kan has pledged to increase the percent of renewables to 20 per cent by 2020.

It depends on a country's demand curve and greenhouse gas targets, Kerekes said.

"The expansion of nuclear power is going to continue in some countries while other countries may not go in that direction," he said.

Nuclear still generates a lot of world's power

There are a total of 440 reactors spread across 47 countries, according to figures from the World Nuclear Association. Collectively, they generate some 2.6 trillion kilowatts and account for 13.8 per cent of global electricity production.

And there are another 219 plants that are either being built or have been planned, and a further 326 that have been proposed.

Although there has been a global chill as a result of the meltdown at Fukushima, Duane Bratt, an associate professor from Calgary's Mount Royal University, said it has not spelled the end of atomic power.

Germany's decision to forgo nuclear is largely a result of domestic conditions, he said. 

Anti-nuclear protestors in Essen, Germany on April 20, 2011. Many in the country have been opposed to atomic power since the 1986 Chornobyl disaster. (Martin Meissner/Associated press)

"In Germany, there is a very powerful environmental movement and the Green Party, even though they're in opposition, are a significant force," he said.

Many Germans have been against nuclear power since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which sent radioactive fallout over the country, and tens of thousands repeatedly took to the street in the wake of Fukushima to protest the country's use of atomic power, according to a report from The Associated Press.

On the other hand, Bratt said he expected the issue of liability insurance — money used to pay to clean up the disastrous effects of a nuclear accident — to play an increasingly prominent role in future discussions on nuclear power.

In Canada, for instance, the total amount a nuclear operator like Bruce Power — which operates a plant on the shores of Lake Huron — would have to pay in an event of a catastrophe is $75 million; anything over and above would have to be covered by the government of Canada.

Federal legislation designed to increase the limit to $650 million died when the government fell in April, and some would like to see it increased to $1 billion, Bratt said.

There has also been a renewed focus on safety controls, which further increases costs, he said.

Poster child for good or bad

Germany's plan, paired with a long-term commitment to produce half the nation's power using green sources, is an ambitious target, Bratt said.

Especially considering nuclear power accounted for nearly a quarter of total electricity in March (before the government closed seven aging reactors), he said.

"I just don't know where they're going to get [the power] from," he said, adding that it would be interesting if Germany opted to import power from its neighbour France, which produces three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear.

Although he is skeptical of its success, Bratt said that what happens in Germany will have an enormous impact on energy policies around the world.

"They will be the poster child for good or for bad," he said.

If Germany — which has the largest economy in Europe — succeeds, it will prove to be an example for other countries looking to ditch nuclear and embrace green power.

If it fails and prices skyrocket, it may serve to drive countries away from wind, solar and biomass, he said.

"Really, this is going to be a test case for the rest of the world," he said.