Following the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in March 2011, many wondered what lasting impacts the disaster would have on the nuclear power industry worldwide. Many countries, like Japan, Germany and France, rely heavily on nuclear energy to provide electricity to their populations. Has Fukushima changed this strategy? We take a look.
Given Japan's geography, it is primarily a net energy importer – the country either has to import oil, coal or other fuels to generate electricity, or must rely on more self-sufficient means, such as nuclear power. The oil shocks of the 1970s led Japan to look more toward self-sufficient means of generating electricity given the volatility involved with needing to import fuels.
At its peak, 54 nuclear reactors in Japan generated nearly 30 percent of the country's electricity, according to the World Nuclear Association. Immediately after Fukushima, the Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Naoto Kan, made strides to reduce the country's dependence on nuclear power, citing safety concerns. Kan's government said the country should aim to completely phase out nuclear power and use different types of renewables, like solar, wind and hydroelectric power, to fill in the gaps left behind by nuclear power. The public was behind this newfound non-nuclear push as well: polls indicated that roughly three-quarters of Japanese citizens wanted to scrap nuclear power entirely.
Elections, though, changed everything. The Democratic Party, which was in power during the Fukushima disaster, was soundly defeated in the 2012 general election. Voters put the Liberal Democratic Party, headed by former Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, in power, with Abe returning to the premiership. The LDP's platform called for resuming Japan's nuclear energy program, and suggested that new nuclear plants be built. In April, the government approved plans to get some of the country's nuclear reactors back online.
Germany's relationship with nuclear power is a long and complicated one. Like Japan, West Germany turned to nuclear power during the oil shocks of the 1970s. However, opinion toward nuclear power shifted following the Chernobyl accident in 1986, as fallout from the Soviet reactor reached Germany. Anti-nuclear sentiment ebbed and flowed throughout the 1990s, until the German Green Party entered a coalition government with the center-left Social Democratic Party in 1998. The coalition government agreed to phase out nuclear power in Germany by the 2030s.
The SDP lost its coalition with the Greens during the 2005 election, and entered a grand coalition with the center-right Christian Democratic Party led by Angela Merkel. While Merkel's first government had a more pro-nuclear stance, it maintained the nuclear phase-out agreed upon by her predecessors. However, upon winning a second term in office in 2009 with her own preferred coalition partners, Merkel reversed the plans for phasing out nuclear power, citing a need to continue decreasing carbon emissions.
The German government put a halt to constructing new nuclear plants in light of Fukushima, and decided to change course again – nuclear power was, once again, to be phased out, following public protests and despite government analyses stating German nuclear plants were not at risk. The German government is currently entertaining bids for private companies to decommission their plants.
Like Japan and Germany, France pursued a nuclear energy policy during the 1970s, mainly to avoid rapid fluctuations in the oil markets and as a matter of state security – the prevailing thought being that energy independence would insulate the country from conflict in oil producing and exporting countries. As a result, more than 75 percent of France's electricity comes from nuclear power. France ends up producing more electricity than it uses, and as a result, is the world's largest exporter of electricity, according to the World Nuclear Association; much of these exports go to neighboring Italy and Switzerland.
Unlike Japan and Germany, though, France has never had a relatively strong anti-nuclear movement – protests against the country's rapid tilt toward nuclear power were dealt with quickly by government authorities, and the industrial sector largely supported nuclear power as a potential source of exports. While the French government conducted security checks at each of its nuclear sites following Fukushima, the country has no plans to decommission any plants or to move away from nuclear power, though a plan is in place to reduce dependence on nuclear down to 50 percent of total generated electricity.