Does Nuclear-Power Generation still have a Role to Play in the Future of Clean Energy?

On March 11th, 2011, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 – 9.1 MW struck the North Eastern Coast of Japan, triggering tsunami waves that reached up to 40.5 metres. The force and the height of these waves caused mass destruction; the tsunami infiltrated the mainland resulting in approximately 15,000 deaths, whilst flooding the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Critically, events that followed the natural catastrophes included three nuclear meltdowns, three hydrogen explosions, alongside the release of radioactive contamination between March 12th and March 15th. Having been classified as Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), it was regarded as the most severe nuclear incident to occur since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Ten years on, the devastation left by the Fukushima disaster may still be detected beyond the radioactive isotopes, with the seismic shifts extending to that of energy policies worldwide. Despite issuing an extension to the operational lifelines of 17 German nuclear power plants, following the events within Japan, Angela Merkel’s government made the decision to phase out nuclear power by the end of 2022. Such an action was taken, in spite of the relatively minuscule threat of tsunamis reaching the Baltic coastline, and such an administrative policy has instead stalled the nation’s efforts towards decarbonisation, simultaneously increasing electricity prices.

Unsurprisingly, anti-nuclear sentiment within Japan dramatically increased following the events in March 2011 and the visceral opposition that this source of energy has experienced has ceased to decline.  An opinion poll conducted by the national broadcaster NHK found that approximately 67% of respondents would like to reduce the number of operational power plants in Japan or simply eradicate all nuclear-associated infrastructure altogether. This assessment comes following a winter threatened with blackouts, as the nation’s over-reliance on LNG shipments to meet demand for heating, manufacturing and electricity generation was exposed. Even with a phenomenal scale up of renewables to meet carbon-neutrality, government policies have revealed that there will still be a 40% shortfall of energy produced relative to what is required.

Despite the disaster altering several countries appetite towards nuclear-power generation, the commitment made by Japan to reach net carbon-zero emissions by 2050 looks an ominous challenge without the utilisation of nuclear fission. Indeed, nuclear power supply still persists as an ongoing key facet in the production of global energy, amounting to about 10% of annual worldwide electricity generation. This sentiment has been shared by China, who have continued to allocate resources and capital towards nuclear power generation to decarbonise electricity production. Similarly, the Canadian government has also proceeded to increase the deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs) within their clean energy agenda. Such instruments are characterised as more mobile versions than legacy reactors, which necessitate complex safety systems and intensive maintenance regimens. Significantly, the greatest aspect of this technology is that it yields no greenhouse gas emissions, whilst it also does not possess the intermittency often associated with various other renewable energy sources, including solar and wind power.

Nonetheless, the capital intensified expenditure associated with the construction of nuclear projects has ultimately triggered the deterrence of private companies from venturing into an industry where government funding has been withdrawn to appease public outrage. For example, the EDF project at Hinkley Point C, which is currently 2 billion USD over budget with delays expected to negatively impact the target of achieving operability by late 2025. Previously, such expenditure had been justified by the large revenue-generating stream posed by nuclear energy, but an ascent in the accessibility of cheap natural gas and the subsidies placed upon renewables has ultimately altered the playing field.

A decade on, the images of devastation associated with the Fukushima disaster remain etched in the minds of those who bore witness to the events unfold. Nonetheless, if a realistic notion of carbon-neutrality is to be achieved, the integration of mass-scale nuclear-power generation must be considered within the fabric of clean energy policies.

By Sasha Reed

Sector Head: Daniel Aliwell