Power play

Just a month before the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan have prompted large anti-nuclear protests in France, where 75.2 per cent of electricity is generated by atomic energy (see right), and in Germany, where Chancellor Merkel is under pressure to phase out nuclear power by 2022. In an attempt to appease the protesters, she announced a "three-month moratorium" on the renewal of 17 nuclear stations. In Switzerland, where nuclear power accounts for 39.5 per cent of all electricity, the government suspended the approval process for three new plants.

In the past decade, concerns over energy security and climate change have led most developed countries to increase their share of nuclear power. In Japan the "oil shocks", starting in 1973, pushed the development of nuclear energy as a strategic priority. At present, 54 reactors provide 28.9 per cent of the country's energy and this is scheduled to increase to as much as 40 per cent by 2017 and 50 per cent by 2030. In Britain, where 20.2 per cent of electricity is generated by nuclear energy, the coalition has pledged to build eight new nuclear power stations by 2025. The Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, who once described atomic energy as a "tried, tested and failed technology", agreed to support the plan with the proviso that there would be no public subsidy. Lib Dem MPs are free to abstain from votes on nuclear power.

While there is little prospect of a large earthquake in Britain, the risk of a repeat of the Fukushima disaster elsewhere is high. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 20 per cent of the world's 442 operative nuclear power stations are in areas of "significant" seismic activity.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world