Fukushima: The End of the Nuclear Renaissance?

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Today I was scheduled to attend a press briefing in London with Sir David King, the former Chief Scientific Adviser to the British government. Sir David was due to address the future of nuclear power in the U.K.. This morning, I received a hurried voicemail from Sir David’s press spokesman: thanks to the events in Japan, the meeting had been called off.

So it goes right now with nuclear power in Europe. As the continent watches in horror as Japanese officials scramble to prevent meltdown at three nuclear reactors in Northern Japan, countries that were once at the vanguard of a nuclear renaissance have begun to rethink and even, in some cases, reverse, their policies on nuclear power. On Monday, the Swiss government suspended plans to build and replace nuclear plants, scuppering three proposed reactors and, for the time being at least, any future plans for more. Germany, too, indicated that it would rethink its nuclear policy after Chancellor Angela Merkel suspended a plan to extend the lives of 17 power plants; Italy and Poland decided to rethink prior decisions to invest in nuclear energy, and Finland and the UK governments both pledged to undertake a review of the safety of reactors.

And even countries without reactors began to consider what steps they could take to slow the growth of the nuclear industry until safety fears could be addressed. In the wake of Fukushima, nuclear-free Austria asked the EU for stress tests on nuclear plants.

“Our neighbors are banking on nuclear energy,” said Austrian Environment Minister Nikolaus Berlakovich, referring to Germany and nearby Slovakia and Slovenia. “We are demanding maximum safety guarantees for the Austrian people, and all of our neighbours must be able to provide the same guarantee for their citizens.”

I’ve been covering nuclear energy in Europe out of TIME’s London bureau for four years. When I started, the industry buzzed with excitement. Europe was talking tough about reducing carbon, oil prices were high, and the global nuclear safety record had been almost unblemished for 20 years. “Nuclear isn’t the devil anymore; the devil is coal” the charismatic CEO of French nuclear giant Areva, Anne Lauvergeon, told an industry conference 2007. I wrote about this heady optimism in a story for TIME, “Forget Chernoybl,” for which I visited Areva’s new nuclear reactor, the construction of which had built up a 21st century version of a “boom town” in tiny Olkiluoto, Finland. I concluded that conditions favored nuclear power.

But I had an important caveat: “Even the most optimistic proponent of atomic energy knows that another accident could halt the industry’s growth. In 1974, President Richard Nixon predicted that the U.S. would have 1,000 plants in operation by the end of the century. Then came the disasters at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. By the turn of the millennium, only 104 plants were operating in the U.S.”

So far, it is looking like the Fukushima accident might be precisely such a game changer. The problem is that nuclear power requires political support. In some cases, that means subsidies; in others it simply means permission to build. And even if a government decides to allow new nuclear power plants–Sweden, for example, said it has no plans in light of Fukushima to review a recent decision to allow existing reactors to be replaced—the nuclear industry also requires a favorable regulatory environment. Nuclear  executives have for years complained to me off-the-record that the licensing process in many European countries and the U.S. was overly cumbersome, costly and slow. There is some debate about whether nuclear power is a profitable investment without subsidy—but wherever you fall on that debate there’s no doubt that expensive safety standards both in building and operation doesn’t help the economic case for atom-splitting.

Of course the regulatory environment is likely going to get only stricter now in Europe, unless every safety review ordered up by European politicians finds that reactors are completely fail-safe, which of course they are not. Swiss energy minister Doris Leuthard, for example, said on Monday that if the country decides to eventually allow new plants, it will only be after new or tougher safety standards had been adopted “particularly in terms of seismic activity and safety.”

Similar debate is also ongoing in the U.S. President Obama has said he thinks nuclear should play a large part in supplying energy in the U.S, but according to a recent report in the New York Times  “he is injecting a new tone of caution into his endorsement. “Information is still coming in about the events unfolding in Japan, but the administration is committed to learning from them and ensuring that nuclear energy is produced safely and responsibly here in the U.S,” said Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman, according to the New York Times.

A big test of the U.S. political mood toward nuclear will come on Wednesday, when Obama’s pledge of $36 billion in Department of Energy loan guarantees for the construction of as many as 20 new nuclear plants will be reviewed by Congress’ Energy and Commerce Committee.  Steven Chu, the energy secretary, and Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, are scheduled to testify.

The environmental movement has a strange historical relationship with nuclear power. In many countries, opposition to nuclear reactors in the wake of Chernobyl gave rise to major Green political parties. Many environmentalists still oppose nuclear power–Greenpeace, for example, still calls for the phase out of all reactors. But as climate change has taken over the Green agenda, other environmentalists have come to favor nuclear  as part of a low-carbon energy mix.  It was this confluence of factors—fading memories of Chernobyl and increased concern about greenhouse gases–that gave the nuclear industry such confidence just a few years ago. That confidence will have been deeply shaken by events in Japan.