Ten years ago this month, in March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the east coast of Japan triggered a 14-metre-high tsunami that breached the sea wall of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station and overwhelmed the plant’s cooling systems, leading three of its reactors to go into meltdown. More than 150,000 people were forced to leave their homes as large quantities of caesium-137 were released into the air and the Pacific Ocean.
Before the Fukushima incident, Japan had planned to increase its dependence on nuclear power. By 2030, according to the World Nuclear Association, half the country’s electricity was projected to come from nuclear fission. But after Fukushima, the Japanese government took all 54 of the country’s nuclear plants offline for safety checks. Nuclear power had produced almost a third of the country’s electricity in 2010. A year later, that share had dropped to 14 per cent, and by 2020 it was down to less than 5 per cent.
[See also: Japan still struggles with its energy future]
Around the world, other countries responded by shutting down nuclear reactors, some temporarily and others, as in Germany, permanently.
Nuclear power polarises debate like no other energy source. People are either for it, and dismiss concerns about safety, costs and its ability to help balance power systems. Or they cite Chernobyl and Fukushima as the reasons why no new nuclear reactors should be built, and why existing ones should be closed as soon as possible. But decisions on new nuclear must be based on facts, not ideology or emotions.
China, which today has the world’s third-largest nuclear power capacity (after the US and France), paused its development of nuclear power after Fukushima, and undertook a safety review. No new nuclear plants were approved between 2016 and 2018. But approvals have now resumed, and with China’s new Five-Year Plan targeting a hike in nuclear power by 2025, the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that within a decade China will be leading the world.
In the US and France, the nuclear industry has continued to deliver. It provides 20 per cent of America’s power, and in 2019 a dozen states generated about a third of their electricity from nuclear power stations. In France, the world’s most nuclear-dependent nation, 70 per cent of electricity comes from nuclear, although this figure is legislated to fall to 50 per cent (as it is replaced by renewable energy sources) by 2035.
The effects of France’s commitment to nuclear power are evident in its carbon footprint. The average emission factor – the amount of CO2 emitted per kilowatt hour – of electricity generation in Germany is 11 times that of France.
[See also: France is still hedging its bets on nuclear power]
But while for many energy experts it may not make sense to hot-headedly shut off existing nuclear for largely ideological reasons, as Germany did in 2011, the past decade has left many countries asking why they would take the economic and political risk associated with new nuclear power stations when they can invest instead in high volumes of renewable energy.
The cost of Big Nuclear has always been high, but it has been argued in the past that over the decades big plants gradually get cheaper. But Mike Hogan, a senior adviser at the not-for-profit Regulatory Assistance Programme, says this “learning curve argument for traditional nuclear plants has never been borne out in practice”.
The Flamanville-3 EPR reactor in north-west France is one infamous example of Big Nuclear’s massive costs. The bill for the plant has risen from €2.5bn to an estimated €12.5bn, and is still rising; the project is more than a decade late. And it is far from being a solitary case. “Areva’s Olkiluoto 3 in Finland has been at least as much of a disaster, and Hinkley C in the UK is looking like it may be much the same,” says Hogan. “The same has been true for two ‘next generation’ nuclear plants in the US.”
Meanwhile, the costs of renewable technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines, and even battery storage, have plummeted worldwide.
There are technological challenges to the renewables boom, not least the need to have zero-carbon sources ready to keep the world turning when the sun is not shining or the wind not blowing. Nuclear supporters suggest their technology of choice would be a good fit for this job, but others strongly disagree that nuclear is “flexible”.
“The costs of operating nuclear plants flexibly enough to follow even the variability of gross demand, much less that of wind and solar, can be seen in the high outage rates and the shortened component lives of France’s nuclear fleet,” says Hogan. The IEA itself recommends upgrading energy grids themselves with “demand-response, large-scale storage, peak generation units and well-developed transmission networks and interconnections” to introduce the flexibility needed to accommodate more renewable energy.
The future of nuclear energy is likely to be smaller. Instead of huge, gigawatt-scale units, developers would install prefabricated reactors small enough to be transported to a project site by truck or rail. These “modular” reactors could be installed as stand-alone units or clustered, and backers claim they are safer and cheaper than existing technologies. They are, however, largely unproven, and many years away from being market-ready.
“All reasonable options should be on the table”, writes Michael E Mann in his recently published book, The New Climate War, “as we debate how to rapidly decarbonise our economy while continuing to meet society’s demand for energy. There is no easy solution.”
Big Nuclear has demonstrated the mistake of looking for an easy solution, and picking one technology as a silver bullet. Without a pragmatic approach, energy debates veer away from the facts, technological and economic, and make it harder for governments to decide on the strategies needed for the most significant challenge of all – the need to reach net zero.