Ten years ago, three nuclear reactors melted down at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, producing the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Hundreds of thousands of residents within eighteen miles of the power plant were forced to evacuate. Most haven’t returned, even though the government has said most areas are safe.
The disaster, caused by an earthquake-triggered tsunami, pushed Japan and a few other countries to rethink their use of nuclear energy. But elsewhere, it didn’t spur major changes. Instead, experts say, climate change could force a major reckoning with how the world uses nuclear power.
Japan Pivots Away From Nuclear Energy
Before the Fukushima meltdown, officials saw nuclear energy as a way for Japan, a country with limited fossil fuels, to achieve some degree of energy independence. Thirty percent of Japan’s energy came from nuclear power plants, which were supposed to provide half of the country’s energy supply by 2030.
That changed after the March 2011 disaster. Public support for nuclear energy plummeted, and, a year later, all of Japan’s fifty-four reactors had been taken offline. The government also created a new regulatory agency to improve oversight of the nuclear industry.
Still, lawmakers see a scaled-back role for nuclear energy, which produces relatively few greenhouse gases, in meeting Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s October 2020 pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Japan’s most recent energy plan, adopted in 2018, calls for nuclear energy to make up 20–22 percent of the electricity supply by 2030, but officials still debate how much to rely on the power source. So far, nine reactors have restarted, and eighteen are in the approval process to restart under Japan’s revamped safety regulations.
Many Countries Are on the Same Path as Before
The disaster did relatively little to alter the course of nuclear power in most countries. Governments that had plans to phase out nuclear energy before the disaster occurred largely stuck with them, and those that were committed to boosting nuclear capacity remained so, according to a 2017 report by the Nuclear Energy Agency and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Still, it prompted Taiwan and some countries in Western Europe to move more quickly to phase out nuclear energy. Belgium and Germany sped up plans to shut down their nuclear reactors, and Italians voted overwhelmingly against rebuilding their nuclear sector.
The Debate Continues Over Nuclear Power’s Future
Today, nuclear energy makes up only a small portion of the world’s total energy consumption. But some countries could witness a nuclear energy revival in the next few decades as they work to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that nuclear electricity generation will nearly triple in developing countries over the next thirty years, but will continue to make up a relatively small portion of overall energy consumption. It is expected to remain static in the wealthiest countries.
“There are remaining risks associated with nuclear power, but climate change and energy security are arguably the biggest threats to humankind. So we also have to recognize the risks of not adapting nuclear power,” says Kai Vetter, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.
Other experts don’t see a role for nuclear power in combating climate change. They point to the potentially devastating environmental risks of accidents like Fukushima’s, as well as the increasing competitiveness of energy alternatives, such as solar and wind.
Moreover, in many wealthy countries, nuclear power plants are decades old [PDF], requiring more intensive maintenance to operate. They are also costly to decommission. The average age of plants in the United States—the world’s largest producer of nuclear power—is thirty-nine years, and most were designed to last forty years.
However, supporters say nuclear power could get a major boost from innovations that make it safer, cheaper, and more efficient. More countries now have goals to increase nuclear capacity in their national energy plans.
For example, China’s nuclear power capacity has nearly quadrupled since 2011, and the government has plans for further growth. India, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates are also among the nearly four dozen countries that are expanding, planning, or considering nuclear power programs. U.S. President Joe Biden has indicated that nuclear power could play a part in reducing U.S. carbon emissions and said he would support research of advanced nuclear technologies.
Will Merrow created the graphics for this In Brief. Avery Reyna contributed research.