The fear of nuclear energy intensified by Fukushima Accident
A challenge to the mitigation of climate change
by Hajar Kasmi and Weimeng Huang
Up to 2011, most people in Europe still had Chernobyl in mind when newspaper, opponents of nuclear power or politicians talked about nuclear power accidents. But this changed with the nuclear power accident of Fukushima on March 11th, 2011. An earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 caused enormous damages at the northern part of Japan. The earthquake created a huge tsunami leading to 40 meters high waves that raced towards the coast. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station located in the Pacific Ocean coast suffered huge damages caused by the earthquake and tsunami. It was the worst nuclear accident since the nuclear power accident in Chernobyl in 1986. The next day after the earthquake workers found the leakage of radioactive materials in front of the main gate of the nuclear power plant. To reduce the internal pressure and the hydroponic explosions of the nuclear reactors, the competent authority decided to scatter radioactive materials in the environment. Today, still thousands of refugees live in emergency shelters hoping to return to their homeland at some time.
The nuclear accident in Fukushima intensified people’s fear of nuclear power, which caused worldwide discussions and debates about nuclear power phase-out and alternatives.
In this blogpost we will discuss how Fukushima intensified the fear of nuclear energy and the response from different actors to this fear. Afterwards we will show how nuclear energy contributes to the mitigation of climate change and the possible problems of phase-out nuclear energy. Considering the EU, especially Germany, plays a leading role in the nuclear power phase-out energy transition, we will focus on the policies of the EU and Germany.
1. The fear of nuclear energy and the implications
What are people’s fears?
Nuclear Energy is a highly discussed environmental topic. The following part provides an overview of the sources of people’s fear.
The risk of accidents
The first thing opponents of nuclear power mention is the unknown risk of accidents. The 1986 Chernobyl accident and the 2011 Fukushima disaster showed the world that nuclear power accidents can happen. The harmful effects of the accident on humans and animals in Chernobyl can still be seen today. Estimates conclude that around 20.000 people lost their life in the Chernobyl aftermath and more than 2.5 million Ukrainians are still struggling with health problems related to nuclear waste and radiation. Even after years, children are born with defects.
Breeders are power reactors which produce plutonium. Plutonium is a fissionable element which is not found in nature. Plutonium is a by-product of the chain reaction and is very harmful if introduced in nature. It is primarily used to produce nuclear weapons.
Uranium is the main source for nuclear energy and is not found in many countries. Most of the countries rely on few other countries for the constant supply of this fuel. It is mined and transported like any other metal. Supply of uranium will be available as long as it is there, but once it is gone, nuclear plants will not be of any use.
The process of mining and refining uranium is not a clean process. The transportation of nuclear fuel to and from plants represents a pollution hazard. Also, once the fuel is used it’s radioactive and dangerous. While cooling nuclear fission chambers by water, heavy metals and pollutants can make their way out of the chamber.
Nuclear reactors produce waste which has to be stored at a safe place. It is usually buried under sand. It is therefore important to find a suitable place. If the waste is not stored correctly it can emit radiations. It is intensively discussed as nuclear waste contains radio isotopes with long half-lives which stay in the atmosphere in some form or the other and contaminate the sand or the water. This is known as mixed waste which causes hazardous chemical reactions and leads to dangerous complications. Nuclear wastes can be used to make nuclear weapons and can possess a threat to the environment and humans if leaked out.
Nuclear power plants are expensive to set up. Decommission of nuclear power plants and the storage of radioactive waste also produce high costs. Developing countries are often not able to afford these costs.
2. Anti-nuclear responses from different actors
The anti-nuclear movement is a social movement that opposes the use of all nuclear technology. Individuals and organization take part in the anti-nuclear movement at a local, national and international level.
Different types of groups have identified themselves with the anti-nuclear movement. Two of the most important anti-nuclear groups are the environmental groups Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. The major topics of the demonstrations of anti-nuclear groups are the risk of nuclear power, nuclear weaponry, nuclear-related research and food irradiation.
The use of nuclear technology has always been highly discussed by scientists, politicians, diplomats and media. Even before the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 the impact of nuclear weapons on domestic and foreign policy have been debated. Professional associations as the Federation of Atomic Scientists joined the discussion about nuclear weapons policy. The public became concerned about nuclear weapons after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In 1961, 50,000 women marched for ‘Women Strike for Peace’ in 60 cities in the USA to demonstrate against nuclear weapons. The local opposition to nuclear power started to emerge in the early 1960’s and continued to be an issue of major public protest in the 1970’s. By that time the largest public protest took place in Germany against a planned nuclear power plant in Wyhl. The demonstration was successful and led to more demonstrations in Europe and North America. The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 led to an anti-nuclear protest in New York City with more than 200,000 people followed by the German protest against the ‘Brokdorf Nuclear Power Plant’ in 1981 with 100,000 people. The largest political demonstration against nuclear power in American history took place in 1982 where 1 million people demonstrated against nuclear weapons in New York City’s Central Park. After the nuclear accident of Chernobyl in 1986 many countries decided to cancel the planned construction of new nuclear power plants. Demonstrations in Italy were quite successful as the Italian government decided to close their nuclear power plants after a 1987 referendum. Chernobyl caused much fear among the public and has seriously limited the worldwide expansion of nuclear capacity for a long time. For many years after the Chernobyl disaster nuclear power was off the policy agenda in most countries. This led to the fact that many anti-nuclear power groups disappeared.
But this changed with the Fukushima nuclear accidents as it revived nuclear opposition worldwide and put governments on the defensive. Globally, more nuclear power reactors have been closed than opened in recent years. Countries such as Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece or New Zealand have no nuclear power stations and remain opposed to nuclear power. Germany, Italy and Spain are phasing-out nuclear power.
States’ policy transition: phasing-out nuclear power based on Germany
Compared with other countries, Germany remains more skeptical to nuclear power. The history of German nuclear power began with research reactors in the 1950's and 1960's. In 1960 the Germany’s Atomic Energy Act took effect which promoted nuclear energy. Ten years later the Oil crisis led to a boost of nuclear power in Germany. Several new nuclear power plants were constructed in the 1970’s. However, anti-nuclear movements started in Germany in the 1970s from protests against plans to build nuclear power stations n Wyhl am Kaiserstuhl. The 1979 Three Mile Island incident in the USA caused the anti-nuclear movement in Germany to grow. The nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl in April 1986 caused widespread fear of nuclear power and strengthened the anti-nuclear sentiment, which led to the fact that no more reactors were built in Germany after 1986.
The nuclear meltdown in Fukushima in 2011 was a key turning point in German energy policy. After the Fukushima accident, the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the withdrawal of the operating licenses of eight German nuclear power plants and revived plans to phase out nuclear power by 2022. This programm is known as the ‘Energiewende’. Until Fukushima, Germany obtained around 25% of its electricity from nuclear energy by using 17 reactors. Germany now obtains 16% of its electricity from 8 reactors. There is no doubt that the Fukushima accident has caused significant effects on the nuclear energy policy of Germany.
3. Nuclear power : a solution to the climate change
Nuclear power’s contribution to greenhouse gas mitigation
In the last few years evidence showed up confirming that our planet is becoming warmer due to the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG). Three of the most important greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere are nitrous oxide (N2O), carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). It is important to reduce the greenhouse gas emission as these gases trap the sun’s heat and stop it from leaking back into space which leads to the fact that the earth gets warmer and warmer. The main greenhouse gas CO2 is mostly emitted by human activities. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, human activities led to an increase of around 40% of CO2. Greenhouse gases are produced by all sorts of everyday activities, such as using electricity, heating our homes, and driving around town. These activities are responsible for 64% of man-made global warming. Most of CO2 emissions are caused by burning fossil fuels. Today’s low‐carbon energy accounts for only 30 percent of the electricity mix — primarily from hydro and nuclear energy.
Nuclear power share in the primary energy supply grew from just 0.5% in 1971 to nearly 7% at the end of the 1990s, before falling to 5% in 2013. Along with hydropower, nuclear power helped to avoid large amounts of GHG emissions and plays an important role in the mitigation of climate change. And compared with fossil fuels, nuclear energy has following advantages:
Close to zero carbon emissions
The IPCC maintained that one of the mitigation technologies and practices that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions is the use of nuclear power. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) agreed with the IPCC and explained that nuclear power is a good solution to reduce the dramatically climate change risk. Nuclear power has no impact on the environment as it does not release any greenhouse gases while operating. The only greenhouse gases that are released are these while transporting fuel or extracting energy from uranium. While doing this nuclear power produces 29 tonnes of CO2 per gigawatt hour. Gas power stations produce 499 tonnes of CO2 per gigawatt hour. According to environmental thinkers like George Monbiot is nuclear power the best solution to reach the aim of clean energy as 4.7 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions would be avoided each year if all the world’s coal-fired power stations were replaced with nuclear plant.
Nuclear is safe
No serious accidents are recorded in the EU since the first nuclear power station was built in 1956. The EU has high safety standards for all types of nuclear activities, including power generation, research and medical use. After the Fukushima accident, a series of so-called ‘stress tests’ were carried out by the Western European Nuclear Regulator’s Association. These stress tests measure the ability of EU nuclear power plants to stand up to natural disasters such as flooding or earthquakes. In July 2014, the EU amended its ‘Nuclear Safety Directive from 2009’, which sets out rules for a safety nuclear installations.
Radioactive waste results from nuclear activities such as medicine or electricity generation. The EU’s ‘Directive for the Management of Radioactive Waste and Spent Fuel’ sets up common rules for safely disposing of used radioactive materials. Furthermore, the Directive for the Management of Radioactive Waste and Spent also requires the creation of EU country plans for financing and ensuring the safe disposal of radioactive waste during decommissioning.
The EU also took care about the protection of human health against the dangers arising from ionising radiation through certain radiation protection legislations. ‘The Basic Safety Standards’ ensure the radiation protection for the public, workers and patients. The European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) is an independent, expert advisory group created in 2007 which aims to establish the conditions for continuous improvement and to reach a common understanding in the areas of nuclear safety and radioactive waste management.
No air pollution
Air pollution leads to health disorders from infections, heart disease to lung cancer. It causes acid rain which disturbs the ecosystems. Replacing coal plants by nuclear power plants improves air quality in Europe as nuclear plants do not produce any local air pollution
The need for nuclear power
The challenge of climate change has become a worldwide topic and people are trying to find solutions. The European Union plays a leading role in the reduction of emissions and has ambitious policies and targets, which requires the contribution of nuclear energy. Although alternatives to nuclear energy like renewables do help achieve those targets and have rapid development, there still exist problems of phase-out policy now.
The climate and energy policy of the EU
A total of 14 countries in Europe produce 30% of the electricity with the use of nuclear power. There are a total of 128 reactors in electricity production in the EU countries. Almost half of them are operating in France. The EU represents the largest nuclear ‘union’ in the world as it has 8% more nuclear power plants than the USA, three times more than Japan and seven times more than Russia. Each EU country decides alone whether to include nuclear power in its energy mix or not.
Today, the energy policy is one of the most important political issues within the EU. In 1951, in aftermath of World War II France, former West-Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Luxembourg signed the “Treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community” (ECSC) which created the European coal and Steel Community. The aim was to pool the production of coal and steel in the above mentioned Member states. The purpose was strongly political as well as economical. In the 1950’s, the energy demand in Europe was rising while the concern about growing dependence on oil imports, especially after the Suez Crisis in 1956 and the depletion of coal got huge problems for the EU. Therefore nuclear Energy seemed to be a new element in the energy supply mix of the EU. During the Cold War, the EU got aware that it is important to separate the nuclear energy development from the nuclear weapon research. In 1957, the Member States created the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Euratom is a supranational control system for fissile materials and safety standards. The Euratom Treaty governs nuclear energy in the EU.
The climate and energy strategy of the EU is based on the three key aims:
· security of supply
The EU wants to coordinate its Energy supply and the demand for energy within the EU both efficiently and effectively.
The EU aims to ensure the competitiveness of the European economies and the availability of affordable energy.
It aims to combat climate change by promoting renewable energy sources and other alternatives.
These objectives created binding targets for 2020, 2030 and 2050.
The ‘2020 Climate and Energy Package’ was enacted in 2009 and represents a set of binding legislation. It ensures the EU to meet its climate and energy targets for the year 2020.The package sets the ‘20–20–20’ targets, namely: a 20% cut in greenhouse gas emissions compared to the levels from 1990, that 20% of EU energy are from renewables and a 20% improvement in energy efficiency. All EU countries must also achieve a 10% share of renewable energy in their transport sector. Through these targets, the EU can help combating climate change and air pollution, decrease its dependence on foreign fossil fuels, and keep energy affordable for consumers and businesses.
In 2011, the EU set itself a long-term goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80–95% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. ‘The Energy Roadmap 2050’ explores the transition of the energy system in ways that would be compatible with this greenhouse gas reductions target while increasing competitiveness and security of supply. It sets out four main routes to a more sustainable, competitive and secure energy system namely energy efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage.
Based on the two strategies before, the ‘2030 Climate and Energy Framework’ was adopted in 2014.It sets out three key targets for the year 2030 which includes a 40% cut in greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 levels, a 27% share for renewable energy and at least a 27% improvement in energy efficiency. These targets aim to help the EU achieve a more competitive, secure and sustainable energy system and to meet its long-term 2050 greenhouse gas reductions targets.
We immediately need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent a catastrophic climate change.The IPCC identifies three types of carbon‐free electricity including nuclear energy. In Europe, nuclear power avoids annual CO2 emissions equivalent to those produced every year by all the cars on the roads in Germany, Spain, France, the United Kingdom and Italy. Achieving the challenging goals of the European energy policy will require the use of nuclear energy.
Problems of phase-out policy based on Germany
As we have mentioned, Germany can be a very typical country which implements the phasing-out nuclear energy policy. In Germany, the policy of replacing nuclear power with extra fossil fuel capacity and renewables in is known as the ‘Energiewende’. The key part of it is the phasing-out of nuclear power stations. Closing down a quarter of the country’s electricity generation creates a gap that must be filled by alternatives. Although renewables have taken more attention in the energy mix, people who are against the phase-out policy claim that it has led to an increase in coal power and related greenhouse gas emissions.
Germany’s greenhouse gas reduction goal is even more ambitious than that of the European Union. In 2014, Germany achieved a reduction of greenhouse gas of 27.7 percent compared to the 1990 emission levels. Until 2008, Germany had more than fulfilled its greenhouse gas reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. However, the phase-out nuclear policy after 2011 led to two consecutive rises in emissions in 2012 and 2013. Although there was a 4.6 percent drop in GHG output in 2014 compared to the previous year. Some experts interpreted this drop of emissions in 2014 as a sign that the country policy did make sense but critics pointed out that a significant part of the 2014 CO2 savings can be attributed to warm winter weather.
Recent ministry projections show that Germany is likely to miss its target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020. The Federal Environment Agency (UBA- Umweltbundesagentur)who collects Germany’s official emissions data, estimated in March 2016 that emissions increased again by 6 million tonnes or compared to 2015 with 908 million tonnes.
Faced with the problems of the phasing-out of nuclear energy, many people consider the renewables essential to delivering the low-carbon energy future, especially for countries supporting the phase-out nuclear energy, including Germany. It is possible that renewables are going to take over from nuclear, but now, compared with conventional energy, there still exist some inevitable problems of the use of renewable energy, and whether it is a good choice to phase out nuclear energy now remains controversial.
One major problem of renewable energy is the reliability of the supply. Renewable energy depends heavily upon the weather for sources of supply such as rain, wind, and sunshine. Without certain climate conditions renewable energy capacity might be very limited. Besides, it is difficult to generate large amount of energy as those produced by nuclear plants. This means that we need to set up more such facilities to match up with the growing demand. And it tends to require large investments, which also can be the resistance of the development of renewables.
Although Europe is unlikely to see an earthquake or tsunami of similar proportions like in Fukushima, it had a huge influence of many European Countries. It is worth mentioning that not all countries are equally affected and the level of social acceptance varies from different countries.
The following video provides an overview about the nuclear debate.
Generally it can be said that nuclear accidents have intensified people’s fear of nuclear energy. Nuclear accidents do severe harms to humans, animals and the environment. Anti-nuclear movements influence energy policies of different countries.
But the risk of accidents can be avoided by measures like higher safety requirements. Furthermore it is unfair to deny the great contributions of nuclear energy to the mitigation of climate change. Faced with the urgent requirements from climate change, we might even say, at least for now, the significant role played by the nuclear energy is irreplaceable.
Trainer, Jennifer; Kaku, Michio: Nuclear Power: Both Sides: The Best Arguments For and Against the Most Controversial Technology Paperback ; (1983); W. W. Norton & Company