In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant catastrophe in Japan, several countries have started to move away from their nuclear power commitments. Germany, with 17 nuclear reactors, is poised to become the first large industrial country to phase out nuclear power. In March, the government shut down seven of its reactors — the ones constructed before 1980. Since then, a plan to phase out nuclear from its entire energy portfolio has reached the final stages of legislative approval. The decision creates additional challenges, however, as Germany seeks to meet its ambitious climate goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels). It will need to make up approximately 22 percent of its electricity from other sources as it shuts down its nine active plants by 2022.
In March, immediately following the events in Japan, Switzerland suspended its approval process for new reactors. However, on May 25, Swiss officials announced plans to close its five nuclear reactors by 2034 at a cost of $2.5-$4.4 billion and not build any future facilities. The gradual phase out will begin in 2019 and lead to a shift in approximately 40 percent of Swiss energy toward hydroelectric, other renewable sources, and combined gas power.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had planned to generate a quarter of Italy’s electricity by building new nuclear power plants. However, in June, the plan was defeated in a binding referendum when over 90 percent of voters opposed it .
Meanwhile, the events in Japan have not deterred countries such as China, India, France, the United Kingdom, South Korea, and the United States from pursuing nuclear power. Following the disaster in Fukushima, most countries issued statements expressing the need for a complete review of their nuclear power safety procedures to prevent a similar event from occurring within their territories.
On June 9, a Russian State Council review found over 30 deficiencies including reduced disaster safety standards and a lack of a clear strategy for securing spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste at many plants.
The European Union (EU) has agreed to stress test all nuclear plants within the union for natural disasters, such as earthquakes and flooding, as well as for man-made catastrophes like terrorist attacks. It is still unclear what recourse the EU will take if a plant fails the stress tests because the EU has no enforcement capabilities. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has called for strengthening nuclear safety, increasing emergency preparedness and improving radiation protection of people and the environment.
In the United States, three Senators have requested a Congressional investigation of safety standards and federal oversight at nuclear facilities following a year-long Associated Press investigation detailing safety and regulatory problems at U.S. nuclear facilities. On the House side, Rep. Lois Capps has called for a more thorough review of the license renewal application. “We do not have the answers we need to confidently move forward in extending the licensing agreement of Diablo Canyon,” Capps testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “We should not move forward until we have those answers.
Out of the 104 operating reactors in the United States, there are 16 license extension applications pending at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Sixty six re-licensing applications have already been approved.