250,000 people joined demonstrations across Germany following the Fukushima disaster, calling on the government to phase out nuclear power completely.
And after a massive swing to the Greens in the regional elections, Merkel’s battered government now seems willing to comply, with the backing of a key power industry trade association, BDEW, which has called for a full phase out by 2020 or 2023 at the latest. Two of the association’s members, nuclear plant operators E.ON and RWE, opposed the decision, but were outvoted.
Germany currently gets 26% of its electricity from nuclear and 17% from renewables, so there will have to be a rapid switch over. Current plans are to push renewables up to 35% by 2020, 50% by 2030, 65% by 2040, 80% by 2050. That may have to be accelerated.
German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen told Der Spiegel: “The events in Fukushima marked a turning point for all of us. Now we jointly support phasing out nuclear energy as quickly as possible and phasing in renewable energies.”
In Japan, with the Fukushima plants still far from safe and the exclusion zone now extended to 30 km, there have also been major anti nuclear demonstrations — on 10 April, 15,000 people marched in Tokyo in a demo organised by local shopkeepers, and 2,500 called for the closure of the so far unaffected Hamaoka nuclear plant, which is on a earthquake fault line.
Meanwhile, what’s happening in the UK? The government has set up a nuclear safety review, and the final phase of the reactor “Generic Design Assessment” process has been delayed until after the safety review is completed later this year. However, initial indications were that the government was not expecting the safety review to result in major changes. Secretary of State Chris Huhne told the House of Commons on 24 March “we will have to wait to see its results and base the debate on the facts”, but, he added “I do not anticipate that it will lead to enormous changes”. And later on he was quoted as saying: “There is no intention for us to do anything but learn the lessons... for example, about the back up for cooling.”
But there are also some signs that a policy shift may occur — with possibly a slow down in the proposed eight new plant expansion programme, reflecting the extra costs likely to be involved in trying to make the plants, and their on-site spent fuel stores, acceptable after Fukushima. They are all on the coast, at sea level.
It may also have to rethink the proposal from the nuclear industry to extend the operating life of the UK’s existing plants —many are of similar age to those at Fukushima.
However, in perhaps a poorly timed initiative, the nuclear lobby is pushing for the UK to spend more money on a new programme, for Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) production, using some of the 112 tonnes of Plutonium stored at Sellafield.
This plutonium came from the reprocessing of spent fuel from existing UK and overseas nuclear plant, some of which has been converted to mixed plutonium and uranium oxide fuel for use elsewhere — e.g. in Japan. There was 95 tonnes of Mox in Fukushima Reactor 3. They may not exactly be in the market for more.
We don’t need any of this. A whole fleet of recent scenarios have suggested that the UK, EU and the world as a whole, can get near 100% of its power from renewables by 2050, or maybe earlier, if the political will is there.