Stuart McMillan on Nuclear Energy one year after Fukushima’s horrible experience

Nuclear Power: once the darling of green proponents, now a disasterous mistake

Nuclear power is fast becoming the crux of the modern discussion about sustainable energy. Coal, oil and natural gas are tarred with a brush that prevents them from appearing as either a conscientious or sensible option by governments, but renewable energy seems arguably more out of reach than it did when the Kyoto agreement was signed fifteen years ago, with Governments frequently readjusting their goals and predictions and then pretending that the previous numbers never existed anyway. The Ministry of Truth is indeed at work in some of the energy departments of the various Governments of the world.

Indeed, nuclear power is fast becoming a viable option for Governments around the world, almost as fast as many other Governments around the world are throwing it out. Memorials were held last weekend across Japan and the world for the nuclear disaster that occurred in Fukushima last year; the worst since Chernobyl. In Taipei in Taiwan, an anti-nuclear protest was held on the same Sunday. So what is the future for nuclear power in the world?

Post-Fukushima, Japan’s Government is still forward about a reduced reliance on nuclear power, and 49 of the nation’s 52 reactors were still offline in January of this year. But in Ukraine, 26 years after its own Fukushima, nuclear power still accounts for a large chunk of energy supply. In the United States, though undergoing a comprehensive safety review and despite a small nuclear crisis in 1979 with the meltdown at Three Mile Island, the expansion of nuclear power still has widespread support. Similarly, the Windscale Fire in Britain in the 1950s did little to dent its growing reliance on nuclear power stations.

Mishaps from the containable to the outright crisis will not stop countries from giving up on nuclear power, it seems. However, countries with no crisis at all may indeed be convinced to chuck it. Far from being a land susceptible to the kind of natural disasters that might trigger a nuclear crisis, and with a history fairly short of nuclear disasters, Germany’s Angela Merkel has decided that nuclear power is no longer in the country’s interests. Funnily enough, Gerhard Schröder’s social democratic-green coalition decided exactly the same thing at the turn of the Century with a planned total phase-out by 2022, only to be overturned by Merkel’s conservative-liberal government which decided to delay the project by 12 years. This administration has now changed its mind again due to recent events.

Here, we have to consider another aspect in the continued use of nuclear power: the Green lobby. Non-existent in the US and Japan and, whilst arguably incipient in the UK (the 2010 General Election saw Parliament gain its first Green MP, Caroline Lucas), it is practically non-existent there also. Les Verts in France, recently rebooted in a coalition with Europe Écologie, is similarly small.

Anti-nuclear sentiment is hard to come by when even centre-left parties are reluctant to give any time to renewables (in fact it’s Boris on the right with his electric-cars-for-London scheme who might be commended as one of the few frontline politicians to have given renewable energy any airtime, though the concept is again still a pipedream).

In German politics Die Grünen occupy just over 10% of seats in the German Parliament and their share of the vote has gone up in every General Election since their inception in 1980. Needless to say, whatever this says about the possibility of a Green lobby, it is something that most Governments currently won’t ever need to entertain.

However, the other nuclear question, it is worth saying, sheds a lot of light on how important nuclear power is to the world. Iran’s supposed flirtation with nuclear weapons and its argument that it is simply developing materials for nuclear power illustrates just how deeply-rooted the debate is in current world politics. Democracies and autocracies alike enjoy the idea of an easy-to-find, relatively safe source of energy that could no doubt last 1000 times longer than fossil fuels. Current uranium sources might last around 230 years, some experts say. Untapped sources could last around 60,000 years.

Yet, just as we begin to accept the situation regarding nuclear power, we find that the world’s other superpower is leading the way in renewable energy. China overtook the US in renewable energy investments in 2010 according to a report by the not-for-profit Pew Charitable Trusts, though the US still leads in energy capacity. The UK is third, Brazil is sixth and India is tenth. Clearly it is a little premature to suggest that the journey of renewable energy towards a marketable, sustainable, practical form of energy is over.

‘We can do that’ was Al Gore’s statement on the US moving to 100% renewable energy within 10 years. That may seem a little optimistic, Al, but multiply the latter by 10 and you might be close. Then halve the former and you might even be being pessimistic. Nuclear power is the chosen energy of today. Tomorrow is a new frontier.


Stuart McMillan

Image Credit- Hoshu