Some countries have not waited for the completion of reviews of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami catastrophe before making strategic decisions about nuclear power.
Germany, after a decade of fragile support for its nuclear system, announced plans to shut down all 17 reactors by 2022 despite confirmation by its engineers that its nuclear fleet was safe and Fukushima-like scenarios implausible. The new plan is to replace the 28% nuclear share with renewables within 10 years, an ambitious and expensive goal.
Landlocked Switzerland, hardly a tsunami candidate, has followed. Five reactors provide 40% of their electricity but will be shut down by 2034 and replaced by more hydroelectric power, fossil fuel and energy efficiency programs. Paradoxically, one threat to existing nuclear plants was judged to be the possibility of the bursting of nearby hydroelectric dams (which generate 50%+ of Swiss electricity)!
Italy held a referendum in June which emphatically rejected a return to nuclear energy generation (Italy's last reactor was closed in 1990 post Chernobyl).
There is little doubt that these decisions reflect the overwhelming sentiment of their citizens at this time. Still, the borders of Germany, Italy and Switzerland are within the footprint of dozens of reactors in France and middle Europe which have supplied them with electricity in the past and probably will again. France's exports of electricity are very likely to climb sharply beyond their current three billion euros annually.
And the EU market for Russian gas, especially in Germany, has just lifted notwithstanding concerns about GHG emissions. We see once again that in the contest between the environment and energy security, the latter wins every time (except perhaps in Australia).
Japan of course faces its own special circumstances - a critical need for electricity but a citizenry traumatised by the disarray of Fukushima. Only 19 of 54 reactors are presently online and debate continues about whether, and how fast, reactors can be restarted and how much of the 30% nuclear electricity can be restored. The contingency plan is to turn to more coal and gas.
In the same week as the German announcement, Saudi Arabia disclosed intentions to invest $80 billion for 16 reactors by 2030 (interesting given all that Middle Eastern oil, gas, wind and sun) to generate 20% of their electricity; Lithuania started vendor selection for a new nuclear power plant; and China confirmed expectations to complete the construction of 30 reactors in the next five years and push ahead to a fleet of 70 by 2020. Other countries such as India, Russia, Poland, Turkey, Argentina and Belarus have reaffirmed their nuclear strategies and continue their reactor build program.
A nuclear divide is developing. Some mature western economies are hesitating or withdrawing their support for nuclear power. The reservations of their political leaders reflect community opinion which is sharply divided. Major national infrastructure commitments like nuclear power require a political consensus which is hard to forge, or readily litigated. As a result, the network of reactors in much of the west may not grow.
But developing countries are surging ahead. A trajectory of economic growth, the need for vastly more and clean energy, confidence from the international oversight of their regulatory and environmental systems, and self belief, strengthen their resolve. Their reactor numbers will increase and the global population will build steadily notwithstanding the Fukushima event.
Australians often look to the United Kingdom for progressive leadership on matters of energy and the environment. That country has some of the toughest targets for GHG reduction relative to its already low emissions today - a cut of 80% by 2050, a target now also adopted by the Australian government. In pursuit of this goal, the UK has in recent weeks confirmed plans to replace its 19 ageing reactors with new nuclear power plants in eight approved locations, and sees nuclear energy as central to their clean energy strategy. It is the most bullish EU country on nuclear power.
In Australia, the future of nuclear power remains a political and perhaps social issue. The former concern is familiar enough. Support for nuclear energy is contentious and a risk to votes, hence the German decision. In the US, the development of a much needed high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was aborted 'in the complete absence of scientific information and analysis' according to a House of Representatives committee. Supporting the nuclear fuel cycle takes conviction, courage and tenacity.
The French experience, where nearly 80% of electricity is nuclear generated, is instructive having seen 56 reactors built in the 15 years post the first oil shock in 1974. According to their energy general director, Claude Mandil, the French have a tradition of large, centrally managed technology projects which they execute well (eg high speed trains). French people like mega projects. They trust their technology bureaucrats and respect their scientists and engineers. Unfortunately, little of this translates to contemporary Australia.
The recent Lowy 2011 poll found 62% of Australians against nuclear power and 35% for - a strong shift in sentiment post-Fukushima. I expect these figures may return to a more even split as Japan achieves control of their damaged reactors, there continue to be no radiation-related casualties, and quantitative comparisons of risk, consequences and costs are updated across all energy options.
But the biggest shift will occur when the following question is asked: do you support nuclear power in Australia if it is the lowest cost, cleanest and safest option for electricity production?
Ziggy Switkowski is the chancellor of RMIT University and the former chair of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization.