Perhaps the most profound response to the Fukushima disaster came from Germany less than a week after the earthquake. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced at a political campaign rally that she now supported the phase-out of nuclear power by 2020. “If we can reach this goal sooner, all the better,” she told the crowd.
On June 30, the lower house of Germany’s parliament voted 513 to 79 to phase out all 17 of the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022, making Germany the first major industrialized power to walk away from nuclear energy. The focus of future investment in the country’s power infrastructure will be on renewable sources, including both wind and solar. Indeed, the country’s target is to double the proportion of energy from renewables to 35 percent by 2020.
In the wake of the German government’s actions, Siemens president and CEO Peter Löscher announced in a Sept. 18 interview with news magazine Der Spiegel that the industrial and electronics conglomerate would permanently withdraw from the nuclear power business. “We will not accept any new contracts to finance or act as general contractor in the construction of nuclear power plants,” Löscher told the magazine. “That chapter is closed for us.”
While Germany represents the extreme in national reactions to Fukushima, countries across the world have been reviewing the role nuclear power will play in their long-term energy strategies. On June 1, for example, Italy’s government placed a 12-month moratorium on its nuclear program partly as a result of Fukushima. Italy had not built any nuclear power plants in a long time but was poised to resume construction just as the Fukushima disaster hit. Now, pundits expect the country’s promised 20-year energy plan to place a greater emphasis on renewable sources such as wind and solar.
Spain’s president, meanwhile, ordered the nation’s nuclear regulatory authority to review the safety standards of the country’s eight nuclear plants but has not called for a change in national policy. The integrity of Spain’s nuclear infrastructure was tested on May 11, when a magnitude 5.2 earthquake struck southeast Spain. No damage was reported at the Cofrentes nuclear facility, located 110 miles from the epicenter.
France, which derives 74 percent of its energy from nuclear sources, has no plans to change its policy, even though 60 percent of French citizens reportedly now oppose nuclear power. The country is moving forward on construction of a nuclear plant in Flamanville, Normandy. The U.K. government, too, remains committed to investing in nuclear power as it shutters its stock of aging coal-fired plants. But both countries are conducting a review of safety standards and the potential impact natural disasters may have on their nuclear plants.
Similarly, in the United States, the Obama administration ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in mid-March to convene a task force to conduct a comprehensive review of the country’s nuclear power infrastructure and make recommendations for improving safety standards. On July 13, the task force reported that an accident on the scale of Fukushima “is unlikely to occur in the United States” and that the country’s currently operating nuclear plants “do not pose an imminent risk” to public safety.
Still, the NRC issued a 12-point plan that included recommendations for dealing with total power failure and multi-unit events, and for protecting reactors and their safety systems from earthquakes and floods.
In mid-March, China’s Cabinet said the government would suspend approvals for nuclear power stations to allow for a revision in safety standards and to conduct safety inspections at plants in operation and under construction. As of September, work was reportedly moving forward on 27 plants currently under construction, including China’s Generation IV “pebble bed” nuclear plant in Shidao, Shandong province. The pebble bed reactor is one of six designs in the class of very-high temperature reactors included in the so-called Generation IV initiative. The reactor design uses graphite “pebbles” embedded with fissionable material as the reactor core, with the temperature moderated by a gas such as helium.
China plans to build as many as 50 additional nuclear reactors over the next decade. That tally—the equivalent of more than one new plant every three months for the next 10 years—exceeds the total number planned by the rest of the world combined. The dramatic increase is part of China’s 12th Five-Year Plan, released March 14, which maps out the country’s goal to add 40 GW of new nuclear power by 2020. In total, China plans to have 66 nuclear plants in operation by 2020, which would satisfy about 6 percent of the country’s total energy needs.
Similarly, India conducted a review of its nuclear plant safety in response to Fukushima that yielded several recommendations for improving safety standards. Among them are installing systems to enhance detection of seismic activity and improve automatic shutdown procedures, and establishing flood-proof enclosures for electrical systems.
Like China, India is pursuing an aggressive expansion of its nuclear power program that’s unlikely to be slowed by the Fukushima disaster. The country plans to bring 20 GW of nuclear capacity on line by 2020 and 63 GW by 2032. The government’s plan is for nuclear power to satisfy 25 percent of the country’s power demand by 2050.
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