Home The Washington Diplomat July 2011 Fukushima Disaster Prompts Transatlantic Nuclear Debate

Fukushima Disaster Prompts Transatlantic Nuclear Debate

Fukushima Disaster Prompts Transatlantic Nuclear Debate

As if wreaking havoc on an entire nation and crippling a nuclear energy complex weren’t enough, the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and massive tsunami that struck Japan in March set into motion a chain reaction that continues to have repercussions around the world today. Much as the 9/11 terrorist attacks triggered a rethink of the aviation industry and security mindset in nearly every country around the globe, the calamity that melted down three of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has prompted a comprehensive, worldwide examination of how nations and the international community can address the catastrophic risks of nuclear power while meeting the world’s growing energy demands.

Credit: UN Photo / IAEA / Greg Webb
Mike Weightman, leader of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) fact-finding mission in Japan, examines Reactor Unit 3 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to assess tsunami damage and study nuclear safety lessons that could be learned from the accident.

That question was in sharp focus at a recent conference in Washington co-hosted by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Atlantic Council of the United States that brought together two of the biggest players in the unfolding nuclear debate — the United States and European Union. Each side seems to be dealing with the Fukushima fallout in different ways, although they both grapple with the same dilemma: how to fulfill their energy needs in an era of rising oil prices, dwindling natural resources, climate change and other global forces.

The conference, titled “After Fukushima: The Future of Nuclear Energy in the United States and Europe,” was held at Johns Hopkins University’s Kenney Auditorium on May 31. Invited speakers and panelists from the U.S. Department of Energy and the embassies of the European Union, Germany, France, Poland, the Czech Republic, Finland and Lithuania joined about a dozen nuclear experts to discuss the far-reaching implications of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

The ripples are still being felt, the speakers said, in terms of countries reconsidering their disaster preparedness; ordering facility inspections; assessing the role of nuclear energy in their economic development plans and foreign relations; and balancing environmental policies against energy policies. Many opinions and ideas emerged, but it was clear from the conference that at least from here on, any point in the history of nuclear power would be marked as either coming before or after Fukushima — much as previous discussions referenced Chernobyl.

So far, perhaps the greatest direct upheaval that Fukushima has caused outside of Japan was Germany’s announcement only a day before the conference that it will completely phase out its nuclear energy program by 2022. This is in line with earlier declarations that Germany would do so by 2036, but overall the move represents a major policy shift and contrasts pointedly with the responses of other nations, such as the United States and France, which have mourned the Fukushima disaster and called for increased safety scrutiny of all nuclear power plants but reasserted their commitments to nuclear energy in the near- and long-terms.

Germany’s decision to shutter its 17 nuclear reactors (eight of which are already offline) comes as a dramatic reversal for the nation where nuclear fission was first discovered in 1938. At the beginning of 2011, Germany relied on nuclear power for about a quarter of its total energy needs, which is about the same as the United States.

A leader in the fight against climate change, Germany has set ambitious targets to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions — a 40 percent reduction by 2020 and a 70 percent drop by 2040 — a pledge that will surely be tested if it turns to fossil fuel-burning coal plants to fill the void left behind by nuclear energy. The government has said its emissions won’t be affected and promised to aggressively boost the development of renewable energy sources, which currently comprise about 17 percent of the country’s power supply, although some experts doubt that will be enough to make up for the nuclear shortfall.

Either way, it will require a major retooling of Germany’s energy strategy to keep up with the demands of its population — not to mention its internationally competitive industrial sector — without the benefit of a nuclear program.

“Germany had a love affair with nuclear energy,” Klaus Scharioth, the German ambassador to the United States, told the Johns Hopkins audience. “When I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, nuclear energy had an extremely positive image…. There was no other field where the German government spent as much money.”

Like the rest of the world, Germans were alarmed by the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, but the Chernobyl disaster really dealt Germany’s near obsession with nuclear power a lasting blow. Wind patterns following the explosion at the nuclear plant in Ukraine exposed Germany to significant fallout. Milk was contaminated for weeks and animal carcasses and fruits showed elevated levels of radiation for years to come. “So everybody in Germany felt the impact, and therefore immediately after Chernobyl the image of nuclear energy in Germany began to change,” said Scharioth.

At the time, Germany received 40 percent of its energy from nuclear power and maintained 23 reactors. But with the specter of another cataclysmic disaster looming large on the population, Germany began to explore and expand alternatives to nuclear energy, such as hydropower, and the government slowly shifted its support away from the nuclear industry while adding subsidies for renewable energy.

By 2010, many Germans’ increasingly negative view of nuclear energy led to a nationwide discussion, according to the ambassador, over whether nuclear power was still required as a “bridge” until less potentially dangerous technologies could fully satisfy the country’s energy needs. A political movement was under way to make Germany independent from nuclear power as soon as possible, but the feasibility of a quick transition was still very much a matter of debate. “That all changed with Fukushima,” Scharioth said, noting that the disaster categorically changed Germans’ opinion of the risks of nuclear energy.

The overwhelming public tide against nuclear power had immediate results at the top echelons of government. In fact, many were surprised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to speed up the timetable for scrapping nuclear power, a dramatic about-face when, just months earlier, her party had pushed through controversial legislation designed to extend the life of the country’s nuclear power plants through 2036. Perhaps not coincidentally, Merkel’s announcement took place not long after her party lost elections in one of its biggest strongholds, the state of Baden-Württemberg, in a vote widely seen as a referendum on Merkel’s ardent support of nuclear energy.

Some experts worry though that Merkel’s change of heart to abandon nuclear energy within a decade is unrealistic. They warn that Germany’s carbon dioxide emissions will inevitably go up as a result of having to rely on coal to offset the loss in nuclear energy — possibly driving up the price of carbon-emissions permits throughout Europe or simply forcing Germany to import nuclear power from other countries like France. Another concern is that energy costs for Germans will jump, threatening the country’s economic growth.

But Merkel said Germany — which to a degree has long been haunted by the specter of atomic power given its World War II legacy — should “not let go the chance” to remove nuclear power from its national energy strategy once and for all.

Credit: UN Photo / Oleg Veklenko
After the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, thousands of Soviet soldiers assisted with the cleanup, working throughout a 30-kilometer zone around the plant, including highly contaminated areas near the damaged reactor. The recent nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant in Japan was deemed a Level-7 incident comparable to the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, although the radiation fallout from Chernobyl was far more severe.

Scharioth argues the cost-benefit breakdown also doesn’t support nuclear energy anymore. “We had to come to the conclusion that there are very complicated technologies that you cannot get under control 100 percent,” he said, comparing the cutting-edge engineering used to produce nuclear energy to that of a space shuttle program. “But of course if something happens [with a space mission], it affects seven, 10 or 12 people,” he pointed out. “Whereas with nuclear energy if something happens, it affects 30,000 or 100,000 or 2 million. If the nuclear reactors just north of New York were to have a problem, you would have to evacuate 10 million.”

The ambassador also cited the difficulty in storing nuclear waste and protecting facilities from terrorism as major concerns, and he said that the associated costs of sufficiently safeguarding such materials and sites was a contributing factor in the government’s decision.

While Germany has chosen to set Fukushima as the beginning of the end of its nuclear program, leaders in the United States and other nations have remained staunchly committed to nuclear energy and often point to environmental concerns as being among the very reasons they must continue to use and develop nuclear power.

In his keynote speech, Daniel Poneman, the U.S. deputy energy secretary, cited President Barack Obama’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions as a prime reason that nuclear power would remain a key element in U.S. efforts to achieve its environmental and energy goals.

“The development of America’s clean energy economy has been a top priority for President Obama and his administration from the outset,” he said. “The president recognizes that advancing clean energy innovation and diversifying our energy portfolio is essential for our economic, environmental and national security.”

Poneman went on to cite the president’s State of the Union address earlier this year, during which Obama called for doubling the amount of U.S. electricity from clean energy sources from 40 percent to 80 percent by 2035.

“Clearly that goal can only be met if we use all the low-carbon tools at our disposal,” he said.

The Fukushima incident has brought the safety of nuclear energy to the forefront of the public’s attention, Poneman conceded, but he said his agency and the Obama administration have never wavered from working to address these concerns.

Pekka Lintu, Finland’s ambassador to the United States, pointed out that his country faces inherent challenges in generating enough energy because of its lack of abundant carbon resources, cold climate and natural inability to generate much solar, wind or hydro power. “That kind of limits our position to some extent,” he said. As a consequence, almost 30 percent of Finland’s electricity production is based on nuclear power, with the rest coming from fossil fuels and renewable resources. Like Poneman, Lintu said that his country’s commitment to a robust environmental policy and a rigorous timeline to reduce carbon emissions mean that “we still need nuclear power in our mix.”

Similarly, other European countries such as Britain and Poland have so far ruled out forsaking nuclear power. Perhaps most notable among this group is France. Because of its own lack of carbon assets, France is among nuclear power’s biggest proponents globally. The country has long relied on nuclear energy to fill the majority of its needs, especially since it was severely affected by the oil shock in 1973. Since then, France’s government has been steadfastly committed to nuclear technology. Today, nuclear energy supplies roughly 75 percent of France’s power, and the country operates almost 60 nuclear reactors.

“The very favorable prospects that existed not so long ago throughout the world for the development of nuclear energy were stymied by the Fukushima nuclear accident,” admitted François Delattre, the French ambassador to the United States.

But in sharp contrast to the announcement by France’s neighbor Germany, Delattre said at the conference that not only would France continue to rely primarily on nuclear power, it would also maintain its policy of providing aid to other countries to develop their own nuclear energy capacities under President Nicolas Sarkozy’s initiatives.

“President Sarkozy wants to give new momentum to helping countries that want to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” the ambassador said. He added, however, that these potential partners would have to uphold the highest safety standards.

On that note, João Vale de Almeida, the European Union ambassador to the United States, said that a vast renewal of safety procedures was set to launch across the EU, including a wide battery of stress tests for nuclear installations.

The envoy said that nuclear power is an individual choice for each of the EU member states, 14 of which, he pointed out, currently use nuclear power, and he noted that one-third of the union’s electricity comes from nuclear energy.

“Chernobyl and Fukushima have proven that an accident here is an accident everywhere, so we would like to see the strengthening of mechanisms, standards and rules at the international level,” said Vale de Almeida. “The European Union will continue to respect the national decisions of each member state on whether or not to continue, or whether or not to invest further in the nuclear industry, and we express the wish — and I believe this debate contributes to that — that the discussion about nuclear is an informed one, a cool-headed one, not biased by emotions, based on facts and rational approaches but respecting concerns that may occur particularly after an accident like Fukushima.”

About the Author

Luke Jerod Kummer is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.