Antony Froggatt
Senior Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources

One year after the earthquake and tsunami that led to the world’s worst nuclear accident in 25 years, the extent of the disaster in Japan and the international ramifications are still being felt, and will be for decades to come.   

The range of radiological and technical difficulties that followed has meant that a clear plan has yet to be fully developed to ensure the safe management of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors and associated infrastructure. The plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), is being kept afloat only by government financial assistance, a bailout comparable to the rescue of the banking sector in the 1990s. The latest Bloomberg analysis suggests that TEPCO will need to receive as much as 11 trillion yen ($137 billion) to meet its existing debts and its higher operating and decommissioning costs, and to pay compensation to those affected, estimated to be $55 billion. 

The financial impact has been restricted to TEPCO, but the share value of the major electricity utilities in Japan fell on average by around 75% in 2011. This partly relates to uncertainty over the short and long term future of nuclear power. Month by month nuclear reactors are being suspended from operation, and not being restarted following routine closure for maintenance and refuelling. In April 2012 Japan’s last two remaining reactors, from a total of 56 at the beginning of 2011, are expected to stop producing electricity.   

Nuclear electricity has to be replaced by the increased use of fossil fuels, particularly oil and gas, and by nation-wide energy efficiency and energy management programmes. The Japanese government is revising its longer term energy policy. Before March 2011, nuclear was expected to increase its contribution from 30% of electricity to 50% by 2030. But such an increase is no longer realistic, given the decline in public and political support. The government, which still largely supports nuclear power, is now assessing how many nuclear reactors to restart and under what conditions.

Impact in Europe and Asia

The most significant post-Fukushima policy change outside of Japan has been in Germany. Within four months of the accident Germany adopted legislation that reintroduced and accelerated a previous phase-out plan for nuclear power. Moreover, the government insisted upon the immediate and permanent closure of eight units, and intends to phase out the remaining reactors over a further decade, while meeting existing climate change targets. Other countries in Europe, including Belgium, Italy and Switzerland, have moved away from nuclear; while governments in the Czech Republic, France, Hungary and the UK, have declared their intentions to continue developing nuclear power.      

This mixed immediate reaction can be seen in other parts of the world. The picture is further clouded by politicization of the technology, and the long-term nature of nuclear investments and operation. Some countries have moved ahead with their nuclear programmes through 2011; India and Pakistan have ordered new reactors. The International Atomic Energy Agency has stated optimistically that they expect Vietnam, Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Belarus all to begin construction on new civil nuclear power programmes in 2012. However, other countries, such as Egypt and Kuwait, have dropped plans to develop nuclear power. As is true of other energy sectors, developments in China matter. China is building 26 reactors, 40% of the global total; yet it has suspended new construction to undertake further assessments and testing.   

Renewable Energy

While the global nuclear industry declined significantly in 2011, renewable energy continued to boom. Total investments in 'clean' energy in 2011, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, were $260 billion - a five-fold increase since 2004. The major new renewable energy sources, solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind power, increased installed capacity by 11 GW and 41 GW respectively.   

As global energy demand continues to rise, renewable energy is not the only electricity source booming. The use of coal and gas has also risen. Although ensuring a safe, secure and economic energy supply is important, energy efficiency remains crucial. Germany’s new energy plan requires policies and measures that will lead to a reduction in electricity use in the coming decade; in Japan the government has already put efficiency at the heart of future developments.

This year will have to be even more important than 2011. Unless countries worldwide begin to deliver real changes in the way we use and manage energy, the world will continue to rely on energy sources that are polluting and dangerous.

Also read:

Preparing for High-impact, Low-probability Events: Lessons from Eyjafjallajökull
Chatham House Report
Bernice Lee and Felix Preston, with Gemma Green, January 2012