Countries Shelve Nuclear Plans in Wake of Accident

While the US considers whether to suspend plans for new nuclear plants in the wake of a potential disaster in Japan, other countries are already re-thinking or abandoning plans for a nuclear future. Since last week’s massive earthquake in Japan triggered the fear of radiation leaks from the Fukushima Daiichi Plant, Germany and Switzerland have both suspended plans to build new nuclear plants or keep existing plants running. Meanwhile a shadow has been cast on plans for the UK to build ten new reactors and for Italy to build its first-ever fleet of nuclear power plants.

In Germany, conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel was pushing a plan to extend the life of seventeen nuclear plants by an additional twelve years. The proposal was already drawing widespread public opposition, and has been threatening to hurt Merkel’s party in Germany’s election. Shortly after last week’s nuclear accident in Japan, fifty thousand Germans rallied in the streets to protest a nuclear future. In response Merkel announced on Monday that the agreement to extend the life of the German nuclear plants will be put on hold.

In Switzerland the Federal Office for Energy is suspending permits for new nuclear plants that would replace the nation’s fleet of ageing reactors. Governments of other European countries have been less willing to abandon nuclear plans, but have not been able to escape increased public scrutiny. So far the UK has not announced any intention of giving up plans to build ten new nuclear plants. Italy, which currently has no nuclear plants, has not signaled any willingness to give up the nuclear dream either. However governments in both countries can expect to face increasingly heavy criticism as events in Japan unfold.

Will the United States also reconsider building nuclear plants, and invest in clean energy sources instead? So far at least one respected voice on energy matters in government has voiced newfound concerns about nuclear power. Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who last year helped sculpt an energy bill that would have provided new incentives for nuclear power, has suggested putting a moratorium on new nuclear proposals at least until the causes of the Fukushima accident can be determined.

The real question for the US and other countries is whether fears about nuclear power will last. Just as the oil industry quickly declared it had “learned from its mistake” after last year’s BP oil spill, nuclear allies are certain to reassure us that mistakes made at Fukushima are now all the less likely to be replicated. This may be true to an extent, but it misses the wider point. Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl were supposed to be the last accidents of their kind, too, just as Exxon Valdez was supposed to be the last major oil spill in US waters. Fukushima isn’t likely to be the last time a nuclear safety procedure fails, any more than BP will be the last oil company to cause a devastating spill.

After all, the thing about accidents is they're not supposed to happen.

Photo credit: Paul J. Everett