The bad news from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant continues to reverberate around the world, dimming nuclear energy’s future and boosting the fortunes of low-carbon power sources. Last week’s decision by Japan’s prime minister to scrap plans for 14 new reactors is just the latest sign of a global nuclear slowdown, and the technology faces renewed scrutiny even in countries with pronuclear governments, including the U.S., China, and France.
“Due to both the time needed for integrating the lessons learned from Fukushima in new reactor designs and the likely hesitations of the public and decision makers, the deployment of nuclear power will be delayed,” says Jan Horst Keppler, principal economist at the Nuclear Energy Agency, a Paris-based arm of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
What has not changed, says Keppler, are the drivers that were fueling new reactor construction: concerns over energy security and climate change. In the past, nuclear technology has been perceived as the cheapest option. But with nuclear on hold, governments are looking to accelerate renewable-energy development, and the latest cost estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Agency provide support for that position.
The agency’s Annual Energy Outlook, released this month, estimates that new reactors starting up in 2016 will produce power at a cost of $114 per megawatt-hour. Onshore wind turbines, geothermal, and biomass power plants all beat that price, according to the agency’s figures (as do gas-fired power plants that capture and sequester their carbon emissions underground).
The potential for renewable energy technologies to scale, meanwhile, was affirmed this month by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which issued a special report predicting that renewable sources could satisfy up to 80 percent of global energy needs by 2050.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also highlighted nuclear energy’s comparatively troubled position last week with his call for a high-level debate on nuclear energy’s costs, risks, and benefits. “Twenty-five years after Chernobyl and in the aftermath of Fukushima, I believe it is high time to take a hard look at … strengthening nuclear safety and security,” he told reporters at a press conference in Geneva last Wednesday. The discussion by world leaders is scheduled for September’s General Assembly meeting in New York.
Japan is taking the hardest look at nuclear, as Tokyo Electric Power—Fukushima Daiichi’s operator—continues to wrestle with dangerous radiation levels in its bid to cool the reactors and spent fuel pools at its stricken plant. Last week it was revealed that nuclear fuel in one reactor had melted and sunk to the reactor’s bottom, and that Tokyo Electric Power had withheld radioactivity readings in the first days of the crisis, keeping the government and public in the dark and putting plant workers at risk.
Japan’s prime minister, Naoto Kan, is looking to renewable power and energy efficiency to replace some nuclear energy. But in the short term, he faces a power-supply crisis that got worse last week when two reactors at the coastal Hamaoka nuclear plant, southwest of Tokyo, were shut down at Kan’s request pending tsunami-protective upgrades.
Chubu Electric Power, the utility that owns Hamaoka, may struggle to meet peak demand this summer without the reactors, which generate over 3,600 megawatts of power. Tokyo Electric is counting on 1,000 megawatts from Chubu to meet its own summer peak, and even with that help, it is facing at least a 5,000-megawatt supply shortage this summer, according to the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan.