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11:27 13 March 2012

OPINION: Nuclear power post-Fukushima: From slow decline to crash course

By Mycle Schneider
PARIS, March 13, Kyodo

Two months after the event that history recalls as 3/11, Hans Blix, former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), stated that ''Fukushima is a bump in the road'' of nuclear power development.

This stunning remark is reminiscent of that made by Morris Rosen, then head of Nuclear Safety at the IAEA under Blix, who, four months after the Chernobyl disaster, gave way to his conviction as a nuclear fanatic: ''Even if such an accident happened every year, I would consider nuclear power as an interesting energy source.''

Given this mindset, it seems less surprising that it took an ''IAEA Expert Team'' at the request of the Japanese government, only eight days in January 2012 to confirm that the Comprehensive Safety Assessments ''are generally consistent with IAEA Safety Standards.'' However, it remains to be seen whether local communities around nuclear sites are convinced by this kind of manoeuver.

Worldwide, nuclear power's decline is accelerating. The situation was critical before Fukushima, as we have shown with the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report, as the industry is now even incapable of replacing the reactors shut down at the end of their lifetimes.

As of March 1, 2012, there are 430 reactors ''in operation'' in the world, an assumption that includes the proposition that only the 10 Fukushima units will not restart, which is extremely conservative considering that 52 of the 54 Japanese reactors are now shut down. The historic maximum number of reactors was reached in 2002 with 444 operating worldwide.

Post-3/11 developments are driven by public opinion, politics and economics. Many countries are moving further away from nuclear power. The German government shut down half of its nuclear reactors within days of 3/11 and plans to close the others by 2022 at the latest. In Belgium the government decided to stick to the phase-out between 2015 and 2025, while the Swiss parliament voted to prohibit any new construction. A public referendum on nuclear power was held in Italy in June 2011 in which 94 percent voted not to restart a nuclear program. Even in France, three quarters of the people are in favor of a nuclear phase-out and Francois Hollande, challenger to President Sarkozy in the upcoming elections, wants to shut down one third of the nuclear plants by 2025.

In the U.S., a new plant in Georgia was licensed for the first time in decades, but against the opinion of the chairman of the safety authorities, while in Texas a utility dumped a $480 million investment. And China? The only country pursuing nuclear power on a massive scale, with 26 of the 61 construction sites worldwide, did not initiate any new projects in 2011. Some public authorities, like the Wangjiang district government, have become opponents. China did start up three reactors in 2011 but, in parallel, connected 11 times more wind power capacity to the grid.

Ten years after Chernobyl, the World Association of Nuclear Operators stated that the accident ''caused such a negative opinion of nuclear energy that, should such an accident occur again, the existence and future of nuclear energy all over the world would be compromised.'' WANO was right.

(Mycle Schneider works as an independent international consultant on energy and nuclear policy. He has advised the Belgian, French and German governments and has lectured extensively at parliaments and universities around the world, including at the Diet and Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University.)

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