Up until the disastrous and tragic sequence of events that continue to unfold in Japan, nuclear power had been heading for what many in the energy industry were describing as a ‘renaissance’.
As an energy source historically viewed with extreme caution if not a certain amount of suspicion and fear – to the extent that it was banned in some countries – more recently, there has been a significant swing in both public opinion and government policy in favour of nuclear power. Italy’s recent decision to overturn a referendum that has barred its use for two decades is a case in point.
However, a huge question mark now hangs over the future direction of the nuclear power industry. There have been announcements in several markets that the approval of new nuclear plants would be suspended, and/or safety reviews of existing sites conducted as a matter of urgency. What the longer-term impact of these delays will be is uncertain, but the issue remains that modern economies are energy-hungry, that alternative sources of power will not be able to meet projected demand or ensure security of supply, and that an increase in the use of fossil fuels will increase green house gas (GHG) emissions.
So unless there is a radical and rapid change in the way energy is sourced, generated and consumed, nuclear power will continue to pose both a viable solution, and a considerable (and controversial) dilemma.
On the one hand, it genuinely provides a relatively clean power source at an affordable cost for the masses, which is essential as energy consumption increases and nations develop, against the backdrop of climate change. According to the World Nuclear Association, nuclear power generation emits no carbon dioxide (CO2), and worldwide it avoids the emission of about 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 per year (relative to coal).
On the other, governments must decide if nuclear power is too dangerous an energy source in respect of the potential health risks and environmental costs on the rare occasion that something does go wrong. Its detractors argue that nuclear power’s cons outweigh the limited contribution it can make to reducing GHGs.
At the very least, the events in Japan have sparked a widespread re-examination of the risks associated with nuclear power that, at the most extreme, could halt the industry’s revival in its tracks – much in the way the Chernobyl disaster did in 1986. Chernobyl however, was the result of an entirely different set of circumstances, so the question now is how governments revise their energy and nuclear polices to strike a pragmatic balance between allaying public fears and meeting longer-term energy objectives.