GP Insights # 484, 14 March 2021
On 11 March 2021, Japan observed the 10th anniversary of the earthquake (and tsunami) and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Silent prayers were held across the country to mourn the victims. Japanese Emperor Naruhito and PM Suga took part in a commemorative ceremony in Tokyo where they held a moment of silence at 1446 hrs (JST), the exact time at which the earthquake struck 10 years ago.
On the same day, anti-nuclear protestors held a rally in front of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
What is the background?
First, the disaster. On 11 March 2011, a massive earthquake off the east coast of Japan, generating a tsunami killed 18000 people. It slammed into the Fukushima nuclear power plant making it the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Second, the multi-faceted fallouts in Japan. The accident struck a blow to Japan’s large nuclear power industry, which supplied one-third of electricity. Post-disaster, most of the reactors were shut down; today electricity contribution of nuclear is less than ten per cent. The post-disaster cleaning up of the nuclear power plant has been a challenge. Even after a decade, the cleaning operations are not over and estimates range from 30 years to a century. The costs, meanwhile, have spiralled up; one estimate puts it around USD 200 billion. The human and environmental fallout has been significant. Over the years, a huge amount of radiation has been released into the atmosphere and to the ocean. Although no death has been associated with the Fukushima disaster so far, close to 40000 people are still displaced after a decade.
Third, global fallouts. Not just in Japan, but the nuclear industry faced a downturn globally. Many countries in Europe like Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Switzerland, abandoned their nuclear energy plans. According to IAEA, between 2011 and 2020, 65 reactors were either shut down or their operational life was not extended, making it a loss of 48 GWe of nuclear capacity globally.
Fourth, nuclear energy in the climate change debate. Nuclear energy fares better than renewable energy sources like solar and wind because the latter suffer from the problem of intermittency, grid integration, large area requirement and low plant load factor. Nuclear energy is, therefore, best suited to replace coal as a baseload energy supplier. However, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, and with improving renewable technology, the global consensus has shifted towards renewable sources, which continue to get cheaper and efficient. While nuclear is clean energy, renewables are both clean and safe energy sources.
What does it mean?
Even though nuclear power generating countries and the IAEA worked together to augment the safety of nuclear power plants post-Fukushima, the nuclear risk perception globally remains at an all-time high. And, with rapid innovations happening in the renewable sector (including higher efficiency of solar cells and wind turbines, better battery storage technology), the world will likely rely increasingly on renewable sources as it phases out coal-based power plants to meet climate change obligations (including net-zero emissions by 2050).
The future of nuclear energy looks bleak, barring a few countries like India and China, which continue to have ambitious nuclear power programmes. And it is unlikely that Japan, where it all started, will be able to revive its nuclear programme despite the government’s willingness as the domestic public opinion remains strongly anti-nuclear.