5 years after Fukushima, nuclear industry alive and well

The nuclear industry was chugging along in early 2011 when a massive earthquake triggered a tsunami in northeastern Japan, destroying three reactors. While the sector initially cooled, it now looks like some countries are getting back on the nuclear bandwagon.

More than 60 reactors are under construction around the world, according to the World Nuclear Association

Japan's once-prominent nuclear reactors were all shut down after the Fukushima disaster. But the country is slowly starting their reactors up again. (Toru Hanai/Associated Press)

Five years after the world's second-worst nuclear disaster in Japan, the nuclear power industry is far from dead. 

A 9.0-magnitude earthquake shook northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, triggering a tsunami that destroyed four nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The meltdown released radioactive waves into the air, leading to a mass evacuation order, billions of dollars in cleanup and total shutdown of Japan's nuclear program.

But it also brought into question the safety of nuclear reactors all around the world. Nearly every country using nuclear power undertook comprehensive safety checks.

The onus for Fukushima ultimately landed on the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and "the general assumption by the Japanese that its nuclear power plants were so safe that an accident of this magnitude was simply unthinkable," as Yukiya Amano, the director general for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), put it.

·  Watch "Fukushima: A Nuclear Story" on The Passionate Eye on March 13 at 10 p.m. ET on CBC News Network

After Fukushima, all around the world there was a chill came over the nuclear power industry. But now, even though some countries like Italy and Germany are winding down their nuclear power, others are back on the nuclear bandwagon, building new reactors or refurbishing existing ones to extend their lifetime. Countries like Bangladesh and Thailand are just getting into nuclear energy. 

Although the world's trust in nuclear power may have skipped a beat, the industry seems to have shaken it off. About 11 per cent of the world is powered by nuclear energy, roughly the same as in 2011, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA).

"In the past few months the number of nuclear reactors under construction has hit a 25-year high with around 60 to 70 reactors under construction," said Jonathan Cobb from the WNA.

Amano, of IAEA, predicted in a 2013 speech at the agency's annual conference that the industry is expected to grow steadily over the next 20 years — something questionable post-Fukushima. 

So what's changed in five years?

Picture in 2011

Before the deadly 2011 disaster, the nuclear power industry was developing steadily worldwide.

There were many anti-nuclear protests after the disaster, some of which were influential in a country's decision to phase out nuclear power. (Greg Baker/Associated Press)

But a lot changed in the wake of Fukushima. Demand for uranium fell and protests were held in several countries, decrying the dangers of nuclear power. Some were influential in changing the course of their country's nuclear future. 

Global response to Fukushima

Japan: Japan had a strong nuclear program before 2011, accounting for 30 per cent of the country's electricity production, with plans to ramp up to about 40 per cent by 2017. But after Fukushima, the industry was nearly shuttered and generation dramatically wound down in 2012 and 2013. The country didn't produce any nuclear power in 2014.

In April 2014, Japan adopted a new energy plan, stating its intent to restart its reactors to "achieve stable and affordable energy supply and to combat global warming." Of the country's 43 operational reactors, only three have been restarted so far. And one of those was ordered to shut down this week, with a local court saying emergency response plans and equipment designs have not been sufficiently upgraded. The court injunction may affect the 22 other reactors already in varying stages of the restart process.

Germany: Aside from Japan, the Germans took the most drastic action after Fukushima. In 2011, Germany generated about 23 per cent of its energy from nuclear power. But immediately after the disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to phase out the country's nuclear program by 2022, citing safety concerns. 
After Japan, Germany took the most drastic action, deciding to phase out its nuclear power program by 2022. (Rene Ruprecht/Associated Press)
Eight reactors were immediately shut down. German engineering giant Siemens — which built all of Germany's 17 nuclear plants — also announced plans to completely withdraw from the industry. The decision was also a costly one: it is expected to cost 80 billion euros to decommission Germany's reactors, plus another 20 billion euros annually to expand solar and wind power to fill the gap. Today Germany's nuclear generation accounts for about six per cent of total capacity.

Italy: The government announced in 2009 that Italy would turn to nuclear again, after its plants were shuttered following a 1987 referendum in the wake of Chornobyl. But after Fukushima, another referendum was held and the "no" side won with more than 94 per cent of the vote. Thousands had protested the new nuclear build program. Italy is the only G8 country without its own nuclear plant.

China: China had one of the strongest nuclear programs before Fukushima and halted progress for a time afterward. Within a week of the disaster, the government suspended approvals on any new station and also paused work on those under construction. The construction-related suspension was lifted by the end of 2011 as additional safety checks and features were added. Approvals for new projects didn't move ahead until October 2012. Still, China has contiuned with its program and currently has 24 reactors under construction. 

United States: The American response wasn't as drastic as other countries. Surveys in the year after Fukushima suggested reduced public support, but the majority of respondents said they felt lessons were learned and American reactors were safe. The U.S. is the world's largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for 30 per cent of global generation. The country is home to 99 operational reactors, with five under construction.

Canada: Nuclear fears never seemed to hit Canada in quite the same way as other nations that experienced serious disasters, and about 15 per cent of Canada's electricity comes from nuclear power, according to the World Nuclear Association. There have been plans and proposals to build several new reactors that were to go into operation in the next decade, but these have been deferred or have lapsed.

However, the government of Ontario recently announced a $12.8-billion plan to refurbish four reactors at the Darlington nuclear station, just east of Toronto. Six of the reactors at the Bruce nuclear station near Kincardine will also be refurbished. In both cases, the move is designed to extend the life of these reactors by another almost 30 years, the province said. 

All but one of the Canadian reactors are located in Ontario, where nuclear accounts for about 57 per cent of the province's electricity, according to the Ontario Ministry of Energy. 

The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is shown. Ontario is home to all but one of Canada's nuclear reactors. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

Switzerland: In May 2011, 20,000 protesters turned out for Switzerland's largest-ever anti-nuclear protest. Days later, the government banned the construction of new reactors. The country's remaining five will stay open, but won't be replaced at the end of their lifespan. 

Taiwan: Public opinion of nuclear power changed dramatically after Fukushima and the topic recently proved to be a contentious election issue. In January 2016, the country voted in the Democratic Progressive Party, which has a policy of phasing out nuclear power by 2025. The country currently has six reactors in operation.

Picture in 2016

While some countries went the phase-out route, many more opted to continue with their nuclear programs. There are currently 65 reactors under construction around the world, with a further 150 in planning. And some countries are going nuclear for the first time, including Bangladesh, Indonesia and Thailand.

"Globally, the state of the nuclear power industry is probably more positive now than it was immediately prior to 2010," said World Nuclear Association spokesperson Jonathan Cobb.

The industry has hit a new high in terms of the number of reactors under construction at any one time, according to Cobb, who suggested the boom is in response to "concerns over greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and reliability."

Cobb also cited the reviews and safety checks done in the wake of Fukushima as key to renewed global confidence in nuclear.

State of the uranium market

Uranium prices have been low since March 2011, but experts predict demand may soon skyrocket as more reactors some online. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

Uranium stock prices haven't fared well in the aftermath of Fukushima. Prices immediately dropped by 8.9 per cent after the 2011 disaster and continued to fall. They currently sit at $34.62 per pound — a 45-per-cent drop over 2011.

Fears that demand might decrease is mostly to blame, explained David Sadowski, a mining analyst for Raymond James. "As Germany, Japan and others made nuclear-negative announcements, expectations for future uranium demand decreased and prices dropped," he said.

But Sadowski expects to see a rebound in the uranium market, thanks to the restart of the Japanese nuclear fleet as well as investment in new reactors, primarily in Asia.


  • A previous version of this story stated that Canada has plans for two more reactors and proposals out for three, when in fact Canada had plans to expand its nuclear capacity over the next decade by building two more new reactors, but these have been deferred or lapsed.
    Mar 13, 2016 9:46 AM ET