Nuked: A Year After Fukushima, Nuclear Power Is Down — and Carbon Is Up

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A South Korean man watches TV coverage of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011

The Fukushima nuclear disaster didn’t kill a single person, but it may take out an industry: the nuclear power industry. That’s what it looks like — at least in developed countries like Japan — nearly a year after the meltdown began. Of the 54 nuclear reactors in Japan, just two are operating right now, and they’re set to close indefinitely soon. At least 12 nuclear reactors won’t reopen — the six from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and other reactors that are nearby or also at risk from a major tsunami or quake. All the rest of the reactors have been shut down for maintenance and have yet to be scheduled for reopening. And since Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has said that he won’t restart the reactors without approval from local leaders — approval that is highly questionable in the post-Fukushima landscape — it’s entirely possible that nuclear power may be going extinct in Japan.

Nor is Japan the only country to go cold on nuclear after Fukushima. Germany decided to phase out all of its nuclear plants, while citizens in Italy and Switzerland have also moved against atomic power. According to the Guardian, construction work began on 38 reactors around the world between 2008 and ’10, but in 2011 and ’12 there have been just two construction starts. Even in the U.S. — where public opinion toward nuclear power is more favorable than it is in many other countries — it’s been years since a new nuclear plant has even been started. Globally perhaps 13% of the world’s electricity is supplied by nuclear power, down from 18% in 1996.

(PHOTOS: After Fukushima: Images from Japan, One Year Later )

And isn’t that a good thing for the environment? After all, even if the Fukushima meltdown turned out to be far less damaging than once predicted, it was extremely alarming to learn just how unprepared the most technologically advanced country in the world was for the effects of a major tsunami on a nuclear plant. As the Economist wrote this week, you can’t blame Fukushima on old Soviet nuclear technology and worse Soviet crisis-management skills. (Not that Japanese politicos are known for their clear communication skills either.) Maybe nuclear power really does need a time-out?

That’s for another post — though at least the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is pushing for a better understanding of the earthquake risks that U.S. plants face. But it’s important to understand that if we really do shrink the global nuclear industry, one victim will almost certainly be the climate.

That’s because in the short term at least, off-line nuclear plants in Japan and elsewhere have often been replaced by fossil fuels, including coal and natural gas. That means an increase in carbon dioxide emissions since nuclear power is largely carbon-free. From the New Scientist:

Some analysts say the shutdown will push up German CO2 emissions by between 40 million and 60 million tonnes a year – about 6 per cent – depending on what replaces them.

In Japan, a permanent shutdown would boost annual CO2 emissions by 60 million tonnes – or more than 5 per cent – as the nation draws extra power from burning fossil fuels, according to the country’s Institute of Energy Economics.

That’s a lot of carbon, and the changes are already under way. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (yes, that TEPCO) used three times as much fuel oil and crude oil for electricity in February as it had the previous year, just before the tsunami, while Germany amped up its coal use in the months after the nuclear shutdown. It’s true that both countries have announced ambitious plans to expand renewable energy, something Germany is already a world leader in. But as cheap as wind and solar become, they still don’t provide baseline power. Nuclear plants do, and they’re the only electricity source that does so without adding carbon to the atmosphere. Cut off nuclear, and you’re going to make averting dangerous climate change — already an enormous challenge — much more difficult.

(MORE: A Year On from Fukushima: Japan’s Unquiet People)

Of course, while nuclear may be retreating in developed countries, new plants are still planned in rapidly growing developing nations like China. More than 60 nuclear plants worldwide are under construction, mainly in China, Russia, India and South Korea. You can only hope that those countries have taken lessons from the failures of Fukushima, but as Mitsuyoshi Kunai — a 54-year-old Japanese fisherman — told the New York Times, our lifestyles still demand the atom:

No one wants to go back to living the same way we did 50 years ago, without cellphones or TVs. Fukushima showed us that nuclear power is dangerous, but we still need it.

Meltdown or not.

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