Tuesday, 15 March 2011
Will Japan disaster force nuclear rethink in Europe?
All of this is in response to the unfolding crisis revolving around several nuclear power plants in Japan that were damaged during the devastating earthquake and tsunami there on Friday. Yesterday a third explosion was seen at the Fukushima power plant, the most serious one so far. The government says to date the amount of radiation leaked into the atmosphere is not dangerous to humans outside of the evacuated 20km radius. But right now everyone is waiting to see if this ends up being a minor Three Mile Island type incident or, in the worst case scenario, another Chernobyl.
But even if the danger is in the end contained, the political effects of this will be serious. In the United States, although disaster was narrowly averted during the Three Mile Island crisis, it killed the nuclear industry for decades, effectively putting a halt to new construction. Investors seem to be betting that this is going to happen again. Yesterday traders were frantically pulling out of uranium stocks, betting that this incident is going to kill new nuclear construction. They moved that money into stocks in renewable energy companies like First Solar and into fossil fuels. The price of carbon in the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme rose significantly yesterday.
But despite all the panic, yesterday the UK, France and Italy called for calm. France has the most keen interest in keeping fears at bay during this crisis, since it is one of the largest users of nuclear energy in the world. The UK ranks second in Europe in its use of nuclear power. And Italy has just started building a nuclear program.
The climate change situation was starting to change that thinking, with public attitudes starting to shift back in favour of nuclear because it is a clean source of energy that does not produce greenhouse gas emissions and can increase energy independence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been working to overturn the moratorium on nuclear power. Yesterday she announced a three-month suspension of this effort while all the facts about the Japan incident are gathered, showing how sensitive this issue still is in Germany.
If this incident does indeed cause the public to once again turn against nuclear the biggest loser in Europe would be France, which has been actively pushing the technology as a clean, carbon-neutral source of energy for the EU. But it may be that despite the accident in Japan, the public will remain more concerned about the looming spectre of climate change than the remote potential for a nuclear accident. After all, there are few areas in Europe at risk of an earthquake, mostly limited to the Mediterranean. Then again, the Japan incident may serve to remind people that despite the best laid plans of mice and men, accidents happen.