Nearly three years after the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown began, things are not looking as bad for the nuclear power industry as you might have imagined.

Last month Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared his intention to restart reactors taken offline after Fukushima, and he has left open the possibility of building new ones, reversing the previous government’s decision to phase out nuclear power. Which isn’t to say Fukushima has not had any incidents since the 2011 disaster; only last month it was revealed that 100 tonnes of radioactive water had leaked out of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which remains potentially unstable and will probably take decades to clean up. It’s thought the Fukushima clean-up could cost $250 billion over 10 years.

The Abe government’s turn to nuclear power is in response to a record trade deficit last year, thanks to Japan’s need to import a huge amount of crude oil to make up for the energy shortfall created by suddenly shutting down so many power stations. Japan’s debt burden is already more than twice the size of its annual output and living costs are high, so politicians are eager to reduce expensive energy imports. Idle nuclear power plants seem like an obvious, easy solution. The election of pro-nuclear candidate Yoichi Masuzoe as governor of Tokyo last month suggests a change in mood may have taken place in Japan since Fukushima.

Currently around 13% of worldwide energy is generated by nuclear power. The United States has the largest nuclear power capacity, though it only accounts for 20% of the total. France is a big centre for nuclear power (pictured, the Cattenom plant) — more than 70% of its power is generated by nuclear.

Several fast-growing developing and middle-income states are building nuclear plants, in particular China, India, Russia and South Korea. Only last week China approved construction of two new plants in Shandong; it’s looking for ways to cut the suffocating air pollution from burning coal while addressing the need for new power sources. China is also now helping energy-starved and politically unstable Pakistan to build several nuclear plants.

But nuclear’s future is looking less rosy in other parts of the world. The financial crisis undermined certainty in economic growth, making it more difficult to convince investors to pump millions into a power source that might not be needed by the time it is built. The share price of the world’s largest nuclear power plant builder, French state company Areva, has declined from 80 euros in 2007 to around 19 euros today. The price has remained low despite modest rises in other areas of the French sharemarket.

The current Coalition government has indicated it will not pursue nuclear power for Australia, despite John Howard’s embrace of nuclear before his defeat at the hands of Kevin Rudd in 2007. Although Australia is home to almost one-third of the world’s uranium, the idea of nuclear power remains unpopular. A 2011 poll by Roy Morgan (soon after Fukushima) found 61% were opposed, nearly double the number of supporters. The issue of where to dump the nuclear waste we already generate at the research reactor at Lucas Heights, hospitals and universities remains controversial.

Thanks to the increasing availability of cheap natural gas as a result of the so-called “fracking revolution”, building new nuclear power plants has become uneconomical in the US. The cost of generating one unit of nuclear power is more than double that of natural gas in some cases, signalling a possible end to the “nuclear Renaissance” touted only a few years ago. Plants in Vermont and Wisconsin closed last year due to market pressures, while safety concerns caused the closure of plants in Florida and California. However, the US recently approved its first new nuclear plant in decades.

Meanwhile, some western European nations have moved to phase out or cut down their use of nuclear power. Germany plans to rid itself of nuclear power entirely by 2022; Switzerland by 2034. France wants to reduce its reliance on cheap nuclear power following Fukushima — tricky without increasing carbon emissions, but made easier by the fact the costs associated with nuclear power are set to rise over coming decades. Britain, on the other hand, is building a new nuclear power station.

Like carbon-intensive energy sources, nuclear power is often relatively affordable in the short to medium term, but has significant long-term costs and risks. While coal, oil and gas contribute to the eventual — and likely massive — costs of climate change, the safety issues surrounding nuclear power generation mean governments must pay huge amounts to ensure the safety of decommissioned plants and fuel, as Germany is now discovering.

Perhaps the biggest disincentive regarding nuclear power remains the risk presented by the possibility of a Fukushima or Chernobyl-style accident. The risk of large accidents occurring remains relatively low, but a meltdown can be disastrous. Apart from the health repercussions and direct costs of cleaning up Fukushima, a whole region has been rendered uninhabitable and unsuitable for agriculture for at least the next few years. The exclusion zone around Chernobyl, once a mix of farmland and industrial towns, is now so sparsely populated that there are animals living there that had not been seen in the region for centuries.

Yet despite the shock of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, it looks like nuclear power won’t be going away anytime soon.

Peter Fray

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