On May 10th, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan made an incredible announcement – prompted by the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis, Japan, the world’s 3rd largest economy, is dropping plans to double its nuclear power capacity and the construction of 14 new nuclear plants, and will instead “start from scratch” with its energy policy, by developing wind, solar and biomass energy sources.
Japan’s nuclear crisis has provided the wake-up call. Two months after Japan was brought to the edge of a nuclear catastrophe by dual impacts of an earthquake and tsunami on the Fukushima/Daiichi nuclear plant, the situation is still far from under control.
On May 12th, Fukushima’s operator TEPCO announced that despite all previous claims, the fuel rods at Fukushima Reactor 1 had been fully exposed. This is a huge setback for the authorities, who have been at pains give the impression of keeping the crisis contained. Now, however, the melted fuel that has now accumulated at the bottom of the reactor vessel is in danger of leaking through, which could cause a serious release of radiation.
The global nuclear industry is reeling from all of this week’s news. Earlier in the week the Japanese government called for the closedown of the Hamaoka nuclear plant , due to its vulnerability to earthquakes and tsunamis. The operators of Hamaoka complied, and the plant is now being wound down, is a key customer for MOX fuel, which is produced in UK, while Japan is still the only place in the world capable of fabricating the ultra large steel components need for new nuclear reactors. In Europe, the European Commission is pushing for more progressive stress test standards for reactors, while in the United States, the Nuclear Agency is under fire for its cosy relationship with the industry.
The lesson learned is that even in a country as technologically advanced as Japan, nuclear plants are vulnerable to unforeseen, yet deadly combinations of technical failure, human error and natural disaster. This realisation has prompted at least some world leaders to take a step back and rationally reassess all previous assumptions about the risks of nuclear power.
In Germany, the Fukushima crisis has inspired the German government to make a nuclear u-turn, by reversing last year’s decision to extend the lifetime of existing reactors. Instead it has ordered nearly half of its existing nuclear reactors to immediately stop operations. Chancellor Merkel said it straight: "It's over. Fukushima has forever changed the way we define risk in Germany. We want to end the use of nuclear energy and reach the age of renewable energy as fast as possible.”
With two innovative, industrialised economies making such strong statements about the future of energy, and gearing up to seriously deal with climate change, other countries are sure to be influenced. No other country is better positioned to lead the development of cutting edge technologies for harvesting renewable energy potential and to combine them into a robust and reliable energy system for new era. And lets put this in perspective, Japan currently gets 30% of its electricity; Germany is the 4th largest economy, and receives 25% from nuclear. Yet they are serious about cutting their future reliance on nukes.
Other countries must not lag behind; in fact, they need to quickly get in step with Germany and Japan. Let’s hope that other world leaders are paying attention to the growing collection of evidence, and have been carefully reading this week’s IPCC report - that renewable energy will power most of the world by 2050. There's also our own Greenpeace’s Energy [R]evolution – which also shows that transition to clean, renewable energy is possible by the middle of this century.
Every country has an opportunity to combine energy efficiency with wind, solar, sustainable biomass and geothermal resources to reach this goal. Of course, major challenges remain, and the transformation from dirty and risky energy to a renewable supply is not yet fully won in either Germany or Japan. But let’s be clear – this is not a technological or economical dilemma anymore - it’s a political choice.
Let’s not be naïve: the nuclear industry and utilities that have profited from the historical nuclear status quo will continue to pushback; renewable technologies still need to significantly expand and improve, and so does its related infrastructure. But with popular support and political vision, we can move forward.
We need to make sure that politicians stick to their words, and do not get distracted or decide to choose “easy” ways out of nuclear – like replacing dirty reactors with dirty fossil fuels, or other unsustainable sources. And in Japan, there is a long way to go to properly deal with the impacts of the Fukushima nuclear disaster – and while we applaud prime minister Kan for his vision on demanding a clean, nuclear-free energy future, his government has to do much more to provide adequate protection for people from the long term impacts of the Fukushima disaster, which has spread radioactivity across both land and sea, contaminating soil, agriculture and sea life.
The world has a choice - we have a choice –we can decide on whether we want to invest in old systems, and get locked into dirty and hazardous infrastructures for years to come, or we can instead invest in a renewable energy future unlimited by fossil or nuclear nightmares. What will we choose?
Help stop the next Fukushima - stop the construction of the new nuclear plant in the earthquake zone of Jaitapur, India
Read more about the Energy [R]evolution
Follow Greenpeace's field work in Fukushima
Jan Beránek is the head of Greenpeace International's nuclear campaign