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After Fukushima: Nuclear power's deepening crisis

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IAEA experts depart TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on 17 April 2013 as part of a mission to review Japan's plans to decommission the facility (Image: Greg Webb / flickr)

Eight years ago, the world held its breath as the Fukushima nuclear crisis unfolded in Japan. Today the lands are littered and the seas awash with the consequences of radioactive waste responses and the economic, human and environmental costs are severe and continuing.

Fukushima was directly fuelled by Australian uranium and, in its aftermath, this contested trade remains hard hit, as is the wider global nuclear power sector. Globally, reactors are in recession and the promises of the promoters look increasingly hollow.

The nuclear industry is in crisis everywhere.

In contrast, worldwide renewable power generation has doubled over the past decade and costs continue to fall dramatically.

A record amount of new renewable power capacity has been installed worldwide every year over the past decade. Renewables accounted for over 26 per cent of global electricity generation in 2017, while the nuclear contribution languishes at ten per cent. Around our shared planet, over ten million people are employed in renewable energy industries and the trajectory is only going one way.

In January, Australia's Climate Council, comprising leading climate scientists and policy experts, issued a policy statement concluding that:

'Nuclear power stations are not appropriate for Australia — and probably never will be.'

According to the Climate Council:

'Nuclear power stations are highly controversial, can't be built under existing law in any Australian state or territory, are a more expensive source of power than renewable energy, and present significant challenges in terms of the storage and transport of nuclear waste, and use of water.'

This view was reinforced by Federal Labor, at its national conference in December, when it committed to

“prohibit the establishment of nuclear power plants and all other stages of the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia.”   

At this time, Shadow Energy Minister Mark Butler was scathing of nuclear advocates, telling ABC Radio:

“This is not a technology that has any opportunity for Australia, it is extraordinarily expensive power as well … we want to focus on renewable energy which is going to bring down emissions, bring down power prices, and power thousands and thousands of jobs.”

China ‒ long seen as the saviour for the industry ‒ has not approved a new reactor construction site for more than two years and is instead prioritising renewable energy. The number of countries phasing out nuclear power now includes Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Taiwan and South Korea.

The British nuclear power industry is in free-fall. Last November, Japanese company Toshiba announced its withdrawal from the planned Moorside nuclear power project. Hefty subsidies on offer from the British and Japanese governments were not enough to change Toshiba’s mind. Then in January, Hitachi suspended plans to build two reactors in Wales, despite massive underwriting commitments from the UK Tory Government.

Just one nuclear project is proceeding in Britain: French utility EDF Energy is building two of its "EPR" reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The UK National Audit Office estimates taxpayer subsidies for Hinkley Point will cost $54 billion, while other credible estimates put the figure as high as $90 billion.

Nuclear lobbyists used to claim nuclear power would be too cheap to meter. Now, it's too expensive to matter.

Japan had 54 power reactors before the March 2011 Fukushima disaster. Now, just nine are operating, while 21 have been permanently shut down. The others remain in limbo. Official estimates of the costs of the Fukushima disaster have doubled and redoubled, and now stand at $270 billion. There is no reason to think they won’t increase further. The costs arising from the Chernobyl disaster in the former USSR in 1986 continue to escalate.

In the U.S., the Vogtle reactor project in Georgia was nearly abandoned last year because of multi-year delays and spectacular cost overruns. The cost estimate for the twin-reactor project has doubled from US$19.3 billion (AU$27.4 billion) to US$38.6 billion (AU$54.8 billion).

Nuclear lobbyists used to claim nuclear power would be too cheap to meter. Now, it's too expensive to matter.

Some promoters hope "small modular reactors" (SMR) will come to the nuclear industry's rescue. Tanya Constable, CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia, recently claimed SMRs were "leading the way in cost". Not so. Only a few SMRs have been built and the scale means they will be even more uneconomic than large, conventional reactors.

William Von Hoene, senior vice-president at U.S. energy giant Exelon, said last year SMRs were

"... prohibitively expensive ... in part because of the size and in part because of the security that's associated with any nuclear plant."

Be the reactor small or large, the Sun is now setting on the promise of nuclear power while literally powering a renewable energy revolution. The lived experience of Fukushima is one further stark reason why the Mineral Council, Senator Cory Bernardi and their atomic fellow travellers would do well to embrace the renewable future rather than sanitise, spruik and subsidise the radioactive past.

Dave Sweeney works on nuclear issues with the Australian Conservation Foundation and was a member of the Federal advisory panel on radioactive waste. You can follow him on Twitter @nukedavesweeney.

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