No meltdown for nuclear after Fukushima

Last year's Fukushima disaster plunged the nuclear industry into its deepest crisis since Chernobyl, but dire predictions that atomic power would have to be abandoned have proved wide of the mark.

Tens of thousands of people were forced from their homes when the tsunami caused reactors at the plant to overheat, spewing radioactive plumes into the air, and sparking a mad rush to stop the reactors from exploding.

As engineers battled to prevent a catastrophe to rival Chernobyl in 1986, some analysts declared the much-trumpeted "nuclear renaissance", driven by surging energy demand and the need to move away from fossil fuels, was dead.

However, a year on from the March 2011 crisis, commentators and those within the nuclear industry itself are now saying the future of atomic power is brighter than ever.

"Fukushima did cause a slowdown in plans for new reactors and prompted a focus on an energy mix that I think will include more natural gas and a little more renewables," said Colette Lewiner, an energy specialist at French consultancy Cap Gemini.

"But it wasn't the end of nuclear, contrary to what perhaps was being predicted after the accident."

The most visible impact was closer scrutiny and -- in some countries -- tougher safety standards for existing plants, said Lewiner.

But hardly anything changed on the strategic view for an energy source that already provides for nearly a sixth of the planet's electricity needs.

While a few countries are turning away from atomic energy, several more are forging ahead with plans to bolster nuclear power.

France and Britain have both declared they will proceed with next-generation reactors, the United States has approved its first nuclear plant since 1978, while China and India remain on course for building scores of reactors in the coming years.

In 2011, about 60 countries approached the International Atomic Energy Agency about starting nuclear programmes, the IAEA said in February.

"We expect that this year Vietnam, Bangladesh, United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Belarus will start building their first nuclear power plants," the agency's deputy director general, Kwaku Aning, said.

Only Italy, which abandoned nuclear after Chernobyl, Switzerland which has approved plans to phase out its five plants by 2034, and Germany which has declared it will scrap nuclear by 2022, are moving fervently away from the energy source.

In Japan, the last of the country's 54 reactors is expected to be shut down within weeks of the anniversary of the disaster in the face of a bitter backlash against a once-trusted power source.

But the closure is unlikely to be permanent, given the country's hunger for energy, said Shinichiro Takiguchi, executive senior researcher at Japan Research Institute.

"Basically, the general consensus for the long term is reduce nuclear power" but not stop it, he said. "It's more reasonable to increase the use of other energy sources and gradually reduce nuclear while taking additional safety measures."

On Monday, IAEA chief Yukio Amano said nuclear power had become safer since the disaster and that the industry had "come a long way" in the intervening 12 months.

John Ritch, director general of the World Nuclear Association (WNA) in London, argued that the industry had "inadvertently" emerged stronger from Fukushima.

By focussing on additional safety and better design, the industry had reassured countries eager for a secure gigawatt source of electricity, he said.

"In the past 10 years, most major governments in the world have analysed their energy and environmental needs for the 21st century, and have concluded that they will need nuclear," Ritch said.

"After Fukushima, those countries re-evaluated, and with few exceptions, mainly Germany, reaffirmed their original decisions."

Patrick Criqui, an economist at France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), said Germany "is going to be an interesting real-life experiment" about whether the switch to a renewables-based system will work.

"In the short term, the answer is no. It's open to debate whether they can achieve this ambitious goal in the long term."

Fukushima has been widely described as a disaster, but so far no fatalities have been attributed to it.

Even so, the cost in fear, disruption and economic losses is huge.

Estimates of the bill vary enormously, from tens of billions to hundreds of billions of dollars, depending on whether this comprises only cleaning up the site or compensating evacuees as well.

Such figures are ready ammunition to those who say the true costs of nuclear are underestimated.

"It took a severe accident like Fukushima to show (Japan) that the power utilities are incapable of handling the costs, leaving the state to foot a huge bill," said Ryutaro Kono, an economist with BNP Paribas in Tokyo.

Source: AFP

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