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Nuclear energy post-Fukushima

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Nuclear energy, developed during the 1960s, was initially presented as a universal panacea, offering countries access to energy independence by supplying vast amounts of power at a relatively low cost. The 1970s oil crises prompted numerous industrialized countries to move in this direction. Yet today, nuclear power accounts for just 5% of global primary energy production; France, which derives 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy, is an exception in the global energy scene.

This is because despite some advantages, which its advocates emphasize (in particular the absence of greenhouse gas emissions), nuclear energy also has two insurmountable drawbacks. The first is that it inevitably involves the production of highly dangerous radioactive waste – which has a lifespan of hundreds of thousands of years. No solution exists for this waste, which is currently stored close to stations that produce it. Some countries, including France, are looking into burying their waste, but this practice is controversial because no one can guarantee its safety over the waste’s lifespan.

The second drawback is the inherent risk of major accidents, which have occurred repeatedly– at Three Mile Island (United States) in 1979, Chernobyl (Ukraine) in 1986, and Fukushima (Japan) in 2011. The growing risk aversion of societies in developed countries has therefore led many countries to withdraw from – or schedule their withdrawal from – the nuclear sector (Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, etc.). Without altogether banning nuclear energy, the United States has stopped building new nuclear power plants since 1979 – with a handful of exceptions. In Japan, the very pro-nuclear government has found it difficult to restart power plants closed since 2011 due to pressure from public opinion.

Today, the construction of new nuclear plants is concentrated in emerging countries, where nuclear energy retains its progressive image and risk aversion is low. Yet, ultimately, loss of competitiveness looks set to b the nail in the nuclear industry’s coffin: it is becoming cheaper to produce electricity from renewable energies (especially wind energy) than from nuclear sources.

Nuclear power, 1954-2018

Sources: IAEA, Power Reactor Information System (PRIS), www.iaea.org/pris; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, https://thebulletin.org/global-nuclear-power-database

Comment: Nuclear power stations are concentrated in North America, Europe, and Northeast Asia: The United States and France possess the most, ahead of Japan, Russia, and China. This form of energy provides most of the electricity in France, Belgium, Ukraine and Sweden. Chronologically, nuclear power stations in the North are old: current production levels were reached during the 1980s. They are newer or even undergoing construction in the Global South, and especially in China where over 20 reactors are being built, and to a lesser extent the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Although nuclear energy produces little greenhouse gas, it has many disadvantages: risk of health and environmental disasters, high costs (construction, maintenance, dismantling, etc.), and massive waste that is damaging, long-lasting, difficult to process, and so on.

To quote this article

" Nuclear energy post-Fukushima " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2018, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:
https://espace-mondial-atlas.sciencespo.fr/en/topic-resources/focus-5F06-EN-nuclear-energy-post-fukushima.html

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