This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you agree to our use of cookies. To find out more, see our Privacy and Cookies policy.
Skip to the content

IOP A community website from IOP Publishing

November 2012 Archives

Japan's Energy Plan

| | TrackBacks (0)

In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March last year, Japan has been trying to develop an alternative approach to energy supply and use, based on energy efficiency and a major commitment to renewables, including a new quite generous Feed-In Tariff for PV solar, a 1GW off shore wind programme and more support for other marine renewables- offshore projects obviously make sense in a country where land is at a premium. I outlined some of the offshore wind projects in an earlier Blog- they included floating wind turbines off the coast from Fukushima.:

In addition the government has decided to allow geothermal energy projects in newly opened areas of national parks. It is claimed that this could result in the development of up to 2 GW of capacity by the 2020s. As a very symbolic start, a 500 kilowatt geothermal plant is to be installed at the Tsuchiyu Onsen hot spring in Fukushima City. Some new biomass projects have also been started, including algae production for biofuels.

Looking further ahead, a 2030 energy plan is being produced. This was initially expected to emerge in June, but was delayed. Instead, in August, a consultation report emerged, 'Towards a strategy - where public debate is pointing' , based on the three options that the government had put forward - zero nuclear, 15% nuclear or 20-25% nuclear, with renewables taking up most the slack, at 30-35%. Energy use would also be reduced.

Early indications were that most of the public backed the zero nuclear option. With huge 100,000 strong demonstrations against nuclear power occurring regularly and weekly rallies outside the Prime Ministers residence, opposition was clearly very strong. In one poll 47% opted for zero nuclear, 16% went for 15%, while 13% chose 20-25%. In September the government announced that it would aim to get to zero nuclear 'in the 2030s'.

Given that Japan, the world's third-largest economy, was originally planning to expand nuclear from its pre Fukushima 26% to 45% of total electricity, a shift to zero would be very significant, and would involve major changes, especially since the aim is still to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 23-25% by 2030 from 1990 levels. However Japan's industry minister Yukio Edano suggested it was possible. According to The Financial Times, he told reporters in Tokyo 'We can do it,' when asked about the impact of abandoning nuclear: 'I don't think the zero scenario is negative for Japan's economy. On the contrary, it can create growth as efforts to develop renewable energy and improve energy-efficiency could boost domestic demand.'

However it will cost. Under the zero nuclear option, Japan would need to invest 43.6 trillion yen ($548 billion) on solar, wind and other types of renewable energy and 5.2 trillion yen on power grids, according to the government. But at least 26.1 trillion yen in spending on renewables would be needed even if Japan stayed with nuclear power. But the costs could also be seen as an opportunity. According to early reports, the governments could create a 50 trillion yen ($628 bn) green energy market by 2020 through deregulation and subsidies to promote development of renewables and low-emission cars. Market liberalisation, to break the monopoly of energy giants like Tepco, is viewed as a key factor, with regional monopolies being forced to spin off transmission assets from generation.

A detailed 2030 strategy has yet to emerge , and with an election in the offing in December, it may be delayed. However, in September, Japan's environment minister, Goshi Hosono, unveiled his own 'green growth' plan that includes a goal of reaching 8GW in offshore wind capacity by 2030. He evidently wanted offshore wind to replace nuclear power capacity. The sustainable energy plan also foresees growth in biothermal, biomass and ocean energy electricity generation. In order to support a shift toward sustainable energy, the environment ministry plans to double the relevant budget to approximately 90bn yen ($1.1bn) for the year beginning 1 April 2013.

Windpower Monthly commented that there was some uncertainly about the status of this plan since Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has traditionally taken the lead on wind energy and has l jurisdiction over energy policy. It added 'Japanese press reports about the 8GW by 2030 ambition make no reference to any collaboration on wind energy by the two ministries.' But presumably it will all be subsumed in the final master plan, when that emerges.

It will be interesting to see how that plan compares with Germany's plan. Germany already gets around 25% of its electricity from renewables and aims to get to 35% by 2020 (recently raised to 40%). However, whereas Germany already had a nuclear phase out plan and an ambitious renewables ramp-up programme in place, Japan is in effect starting from scratch, with just 1% of power coming from renewables, so it will be harder to get to high levels quickly. But with fossil fuel imports costing a lot, the incentive for rapid change is clearly there, so it may accelerate to get beyond the 35% currently envisaged for 2030, thus keeping its emission targets intact- the aim was to cut GHG emissions by 30% (from 1990 levels) by 2030. Under the 35% renewables/ zero nuclear plan that could fall to 23%., although that depends on what level of energy savings are achieved.

With around 60,000 of the 150,000 evacuees from the Fukushima area still unable to return home, the energy issue remains high on the public agenda, and support for change is clearly strong. That may be crucial in terms of reducing energy use. The emergency energy saving measures imposed by the government after Fukushima cut peak summer energy use by around 10%, partly as a result of behavioural changes, with consumers being exhorted to reduce demand so as to avoid blackouts; for more on that and the political aftermath see In parallel, on the technology front, there are some clever new ideas emerging for smart integrated domestic energy management systems. For example see the work of ECHONET , the Energy Conservation and Homecare Network

With its track record in technological innovation, Japan may yet show us all how to develop more sustainable ways of living.

For more on post-Fukushima reactions in Japan and elsewhere, see my e-book for Palgrave 'Fukushima; impacts and implications'.

Green energy in China

| | TrackBacks (0)

China is pushing ahead with renewables on a very large scale, with renewables and other non-fossil fuel options expected to provide around 15 % of its total energy needs by 2020: the nuclear programme is a small part of that, aiming to get to 4% of electricity by 2020. Renewables already supply 17%.

Wind power is the big new thing. There is 62 GW of capacity installed so far- way ahead of every other country. And that's just the start. The Chinese Wind Power Development Roadmap 2050 stipulates that China will have 200 GW installed wind capacity by 2020, 400 GW by 2030, and 1,000 GW by 2050.

However, it is trying to refocus what has so far been something of a uncontrolled boom, with, for example, insufficient attention having been paid to proving the necessary grid links. The result has been that, although China had over 42 GW of wind capacity installed by the start of 2011, only an estimated 31 GW was grid-linked. Many of these projects, most of which were in remote areas in the North West, poorly served by grid links, were often unable to dispatch their full potential output to users, most of whom are in the major urban areas on the coast. This issue is now being addressed- the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011 - 15), includes significant investment in grid infrastructure.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has said China will restrain its 'blind' expansion of the wind power industry and improve planning procedures for projects. 'China must establish a mechanism promoting the use of new energy. It must strengthen overall planning, furnish supporting facilities to projects, guide the projects with government policies, and expand domestic demands.'

It will give priority to develop onshore wind power before 2020, while experimenting with pilot offshore wind projects, near the coastline. From 2021 to 2030, it will give equal attention to develop onshore and offshore wind, and experiment with pilot wind projects far away offshore. From 2031 to 2050, it will support all-round development of onshore (in the eastern, central and western regions) and far and near offshore, and also push energy storage technology, smart grids, and other advanced electric power systems.

Hydro has of course been the big more conventional renewable option for China, and, given the remote location of giant projects like the giant 18.2 GW (soon to be 22.4 GW). Three Gorges damn, that too has grid implications, although more progress has been made there. A series of High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) supergrid links have been built to East and South China, over distances of around 1,000 km, to transfer electricity from the Three Gorges hydro power plant. The total capacity of the HVDC links is 7,200 MW, with line losses put at about 3%.

On a very different technology scale , PV solar is the other big new renewable option. So far China has focused on exporting PV, it's a world leader, but now it is looking to large scale deployment in China, with its earlier 10GW by 2020 target now replaced: the Chinese government recently increased its target for solar energy by 40%, pledging to deploy 21GW of capacity by 2015.

It certainly seems to be heading that way. According to a Modern Power Systems' 'Global Renewable Power Investment Outlook for 2012', published by Global Data, China's solar power domestic solar PV equipment demand was 'expected to rise, with the increase of 65% in their solar power capacity additions in 2012.' But it is still looking to exports. The report says that 'Besides focusing on its domestic market, China also plans to invest around $100m for the development of solar power projects in 40 African nations. Africa could be seen as a prospective demand market for China's solar manufacturers, thereby enabling them to expand their production targets'

In addition, China is looking to marine renewables. China's tidal resource has been put at 190 GW, 38.5 GW of which is available for development, giving an annual output of 87 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. The China Ocean Energy Resources Division says 424 tidal power stations could be built along the coastline, mainly in maritime provinces like Zhejiang and Fujian.

All the above are focused on electricity, but China also has huge solar thermal and biomass potentials, some of which can be, and already is, harnessed at the local level meeting heat needs direct. Solar heating is quite widespread, as is biogas production from agrictulutral wastes and large pig farms. The big advantage of biogas is that it can be stored, so it is not a weather dependent resource.

By contrast, as noted above, most of its large green electricity assets are weather dependent and are also in remote locations. However, the newly emerging supergrid network can not only bring power to demand centres, it can.also help with balancing the variable renewable inputs and variable demand making use of the sheer size of the country-if it's not windy in one area it may well be in another.

The supergrid network may also be extended to provide links with other countries for exports and balancing imports when needed. Liu Zhenya, General Manager of State Grid Corporation of China, has indicated that China plans to enhance transnational grid connection projects during the period of 2011-2015, and one of the key projects is a China-Russia direct-current scheme. China will, he says, accelerate construction of direct-current power transmission from Russia and Mongolia to Liaoning,Tianjin and Shandong during the period of 2016-2020 and 2020-2030, based upon power transmission from surrounding countries to China and in accordance with development needs of Northeast China and North China.. Source: SinoCast Daily Business Beat, 10/5/12

With up to 140 GW of hydropower and maybe even more wind-power installed capacity likely to be in place within the next 10 years, they may at times have some power to spare, but also at times may need some balancing inputs. For that, there is certainly abundant wind power available in Inner Mongolia, and Mongolia has plans for developing large scale Concentrating Solar power (CSP) projects in the Gobi Desert. Excess electricity (around 1GW) from its proposed Gobitec CSP project would be exported to urban centers in China, Japan, and South Korea via a new network of nearly 4,000 km of high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines.

We could thus see the creation of a East Asian supergrid network- something that Japan in particular, being a series of islands with limited land area for renewable energy projects, may find very helpful. As I noted in an earlier Blog, the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation and the German-led Desertec Foundation have already teamed up to promote an Asian Supergrid that would connect the national grids of Japan, Korea, China, Mongolia and Russia. Desertec has of course proposed something similar for Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. It will be interesting to see which happens first. See 24-01-wind-power-from-the-gobi-desert/

See also my supergrid paper:

Renewables power ahead

| | TrackBacks (0)

Renewable energy is being taken increasingly seriously as a major energy option, if not the major energy option. 'The share of renewable energy in global primary energy could increase from the current 17% to between 30% to 75%, and in some regions exceed 90%, by 2050.' So said the Global Energy Assessment (GEA) produced by an international team led by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The GEA develops a series of possible low-carbon pathways, including one with maximum demand saving achieved through a focus on energy efficiency. In that, residual nuclear power is phased out in most of the world and totally by 2050. The GEA sees 'nuclear energy as a choice, not a requirement,' adding that 'it is possible to meet all GEA goals even in the case of a nuclear phase-out'. However it accepts that nuclear 'can play an important role in the supply-side portfolio of some transition pathways'. But the main emphasis in all scenarios is on renewables and efficiency.

It won't be cheap. The GEA indicates that global investments in combined energy efficiency and supply will need to increase to between US$1.7-2.2 trillion per year compared to present levels of about US$1.3 trillion per year (~2% of current world gross domestic product) including end-use components. However, longer term this could be a wise investment. For example, the International Energy Agency has put the total cost of a low carbon future at $36 trillion by 2050, but they noted that ~ $100 trillion would then be saved via reduced use of fossil fuels.

While the longer term benefits may be large, what will dive the change over in the shorter term? Given its exit from nuclear, Germany has been pursuing its renewables programme with some vigour, and Japan is now following the same route. Although, to reflect the fact that they are low carbon , most renewables still need subsidies or climate policy linked tax/support regimes, it could be that technological progress in countries like this will push renewables on to the point when some become economically attractive compared to fossil fuel around the a world, perhaps within a decade- without any need for subsidies or mandatory global climate treaties. "An alternative to a global climate deal may be unfolding before our eyes," says an article in the journal Climate and Development, by researchers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. That's pretty optimistic. But many countries in the EU are certainly trying- and reaping economic benefits, not least in terms of employment: according to a study commissioned by the German Federal Environment Ministry, the development and production of renewable energy technologies and the supply of electricity, heat and fuel from renewable sources provided around 382,000 jobs in 2011- 125,000 in solar, 124,000 in biomass and more than 100,000 in wind power.

The growth of uptake has certainly been striking. The Strategic Energy Technologies review produced by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) noted steep increases of wind and solar generation capacity in the EU and worldwide and found that in the wind sector deployment grew 65% globally (to 200 GW), largely driven by China, while solar PV had reached 70 GW globally by the end of 2011. At the beginning of 2011, CSP plants with a cumulative capacity of about 730 MW, were in commercial operation in Spain, about 58% of the worldwide capacity of 1.26 GW. Spain is also currently constructing an additional 898 MW and another 842 MW have already registered for the feed-in tariff, which would bring the total capacity to about 2.5 GW by 2013.

As renewables expand, there will be a need for grid upgrades. But 2012 has also seen a big push for green gas as opposed to (just) electricity, with several 'wind-to-gas' hydrogen electrolysis projects in Germany, with some of the resultant green gas being injected in to the gas main, along with biogas from Anaerobic Digestion of wastes. In parallel, three Dutch, Danish and Belgian companies issued a joint-declaration on their intention to develop carbon free gas networks by 2050, based on biogas, biomass, and conversion of excess renewables to hydrogen and synthetic gas.

It's been argued that, not only is gas much easier to store than electricity, shifting over to green gas also has attractions on the transmission side - gas pipelines are more efficient, cheaper, and, once built, less invasive, than electricity grid links.

Issues like this will be crucial as we try to link more dispersed renewables in. There certainly is no shortage of scenarios with very high renewable percentages, with wind power playing a major role. Mark Jacobson at Stanford University has even argued that there is 'no fundamental barrier to obtaining half (5.75 TW) or many times more of world's all-purpose 2030 power demand from wind'. See his earlier papers on wind: and on global renewables:

However, while wind is relatively cheap, direct solar is a much bigger resource. Although it's harder to harvest efficiently, longer term it must be where we will go. Including presumably Concentrating Solar Power in desert areas. Then of course will do need electricity transmission via HVDC supergrids, unless you are going to use CSP to make hydrogen and export it via pipe or tanker.

There's also the green heat issue- while some see heating being provided by spare electricity from offshore wind farms, the idea of using it in domestic scale heat pumps has taken a bit of a hit recently, while large scale community wide Combined Heat and Power /district heating has moved up the agenda. It is widely used in continental europe, but it is beginning to get established in the UK. The CHP Association has pointed out that there are already over 200 heat networks in the UK, a mixture of residential, commercial and public sites, with 70 more in development. So far, 38% use renewables.

Whether for heat or power, renewables do seem to be becoming well established. Overall, in 2011 renewable sources supplied 16.7% of global final energy consumption, with investment in renewables increasing by 17% to a record $257 billion, 94% higher than the total in 2007, the year before the world financial crisis. Globally, renewables accounted for over 71% of total new electricity capacity additions in 2011, swelling renewables total share of electricity capacity to over 31%. 2011 also saw photovoltaic module prices drop by 50% and onshore wind turbines by close to 10% bringing to price of the leading renewable power technologies closer to grid parity with fossil fuels such as coal and gas..See and

In my next few Blogs I will be looking at the state of play around the world - in China, Japan, Germany and the USA

Choosing energy technology

| | TrackBacks (0)

'The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO'. So said the official report from Japan's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, which labeled the accident as 'man made'.

To an extent then it shifted the emphasis from the technology to the institutional context. While there is no doubt that the corporate and regulatory framework were at fault, it can also be argued that the basic technology was, and remains, problematic. Nuclear power is clearly an unforgiving technology, intolerant of errors, human or otherwise, with, arguably, the costs and risks outweighing the benefits. Certainly the costs of accidents are large: TEPCO has just doubled its estimate of the clean up/compensation costs for Fukushima to $125 billion, and that leaves out plant decommissioning cost. In many countries around the world, the advantages are increasingly seen to be outweighed by the problems -although the UK seems to be an exception.

However, nuclear power seems to be more accepted in the UK than in may other countries, although the balance is a fine one. In DECCs recent opinion survey, 29% of respondents said they thought the benefits of nuclear energy outweighed the risks, while 30% thought the contrary, and 32% said the benefits and risks were evenly balanced.

Views are also likely to vary if the questions put to respondents ask about relative levels of support for nuclear compared with other options. For example, in a 2008 Cardiff University/Ipsos-Mori poll, 71% of respondents said that promoting solar and wind power was a better way of tackling climate change than nuclear power.

A meta-study of 23 UK polls covering the period 2004 - 2007 by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology had come to similar conclusions: 'some respondents indicated that they might support nuclear power if it would help mitigate climate change. However, renewable sources of energy were seen to be a better means of doing this.'

If we move away from generalised views, to specific issue like the cost, it ought to be easier to make technological choices. However it turns out to be hard to come up with reliable estimates of cost, especially for as yet unbuilt and untested technologies, like the new range of nuclear plants that has been proposed for the UK . For example, according to the Financial Times (15/7/12), EDF Energy might need up to £165/ megawatt hour, almost four times the existing wholesale price of electricity, if it is to go ahead with the new Hinkley Point nuclear plant. That may be overstating it. Bloomberg have suggested that in fact nuclear might be able to go ahead at £95-105/MW.

For comparison, Dr David Toke from Birmingham University has pointed out that under the UK Renewables Obligation offshore windfarms that have been recently and are now being installed are being paid around £135 per MWh (2xs £42.00 /MWh renewable obligation certificate value, plus wholesale electricity price at £50/MWh). In the UK, solar PV is now being paid £160 per MWh and onshore wind £92/MWh - and wind power prices are inflated by the inefficiencies of the Renewables Obligation, compared to the 'feed-in tariff' system price that is quoted as the basis for EDF nuclear power. In addition, the consumer will be locked into paying for nuclear for 25 years under the EDF plan, whereas the renewable energy support only lasts for 15 years.

So the debate goes on. EDF has denied that new nuclear would need anything like £165/MWh, and argued that, in any case, the total costs of new offshore wind projects planned for the North Sea will be £180/MWh. Then again it's been claimed that offshore wind should be able to get down to £100/MWh by 2020, while PV costs will fall even more rapidly. But again that's all speculative.

What we can say is that, although on land wind is clearly the best bet now, there is limited room for expansion, and for the other non fossil options, the economics are still uncertain, but will probably be pretty much similar for offshore wind, PV and nuclear in the decades ahead. Which means we are left looking for other factors to help us decide on the best options for the future.

Energy security is sometime presented as a key factor. In raw energy terms, it is best to use indigenous sources rather than imports, which favors renewables as opposed to nuclear, especially given the likely increasing scarcity and cost of high-grade uranium ore in the future. But, if we ignore the possibility of terrorist threats, assuming they have sufficient fuel to keep running, nuclear plants are less prone to down time than wind farms. The load factor for the UK nuclear fleet has averaged 60% of the last few years, whereas wind farms on and off shore have only achieved around 30%. The nuclear lobby says it can get up to 80-90% with new technology, while DECC now uses 45% for new offshore wind projects.

So although wind has a big handicap, it's still neck and neck in this race too, with there being a range of technical options for compensating for the variability of wind. They will of course add slightly to the cost (around £2.5/MWh for contributions to supply of up to around 20%, and up to £7/MWh for a 40% contribution).

However, with large amounts of new nuclear on the grid, there would also be an increasing need for extra backup reserve capacity in case some these plants failed. Some of this 'large loss' compensatory capacity could of course be nuclear capacity, but most would presumably be fast start up gas turbines, all of which would add to the cost of the programme. In its 2010 study of the cost of maintaining adequate frequency response via the grid Balancing Services Incentive Scheme (BSUoS), National Grid estimated that 'the risk imposed by six additional 1800 MW [nuclear]power stations on the system could increase from £160m to £319m'.

By contrast, National Grid have noted that generators with less than 350 MW capacity, including all operational wind farms in the UK, 'pose no additional loss risk to the system'. Given that it seems from the above simple and I hope relatively neutral assessment, the economic and strategic pros and cons are mostly quite finely balanced, it is perhaps not surprising that issues such as safety and health risks become so influential- and divisive. It seems pretty clear than nuclear presents more health risks than wind or solar power even on a kWh energy production basic, but there are bitter disputes over the impacts of radiation, with the industry keen to have permitted exposure levels raised, while its opponents want them lowered. I have explored this issue in my new book of Fukushima. Like nuclear waste (the other big problem for nuclear power) the health issues won't go away!

See my new book on Fukushima:

October's favourite ERL video abstract

| | TrackBacks (0)

October's most popular Environmental Research Letters (ERL) video abstract was on "Can switching fuels save water? A life cycle quantification of freshwater consumption for Texas coal- and natural gas-fired electricity".

It's currently close runner-up to September's most popular video abstract - on "Sources of multi-decadal variability in Arctic sea ice extent".

See the full collection of video abstracts.

Fukushima revisited

| | TrackBacks (0)

After a US Congressional visit to the Fukushima reactor complex earlier in the year, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden said 'The scope of damage to the plants and to the surrounding area was far beyond what I expected. The precarious status of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear units and the risk presented by the enormous inventory of radioactive materials and spent fuel in the event of further earthquake threats should be of concern to all.'

The point being that the accident was not really over - there could still be new threats, on top of the ongoing concerns about possible longer-term impacts of radiation exposure and in addition to the massive problem of decontaminating the region and making the reactors and waste stores safe. While there have been no reports of radiation-linked deaths so far, and the emissions overall were less than from Chernobyl, it's still very early days. What is clear is that there have been massive social and economic impacts in Japan, and that the Fukushima disaster has also had significant impacts around the world. Several key countries have abandoned their nuclear programmes and are developing renewables instead. It's not just Germany, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland- Bahrain, Kuwait, Malaysia and the Philippines have also backed off nuclear and Taiwan plans to. Japan has now decided on a phase out 'by the 2030s', and even France is now considering a partial nuclear phase out by 2025. Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Norway and many other western EU countries remain steadfastly non-nuclear.

Nevertheless, some countries are still pushing ahead with nuclear power, including China, India, Russia, the US and the UK. In a new book I have tried to explore and assess the differing reactions around the world in terms of political differences and in the light, in some cases, of denial over the large potential for renewables e.g. wind in Russia and solar in the Middle East. There are, I argue, no simple single explanations for the different approaches: public opinion in most countries is hostile: a 24-country public opinion study carried out by Ipsos in May 2011 found that 62% of those asked opposed nuclear power. 26% had changed their mind after Fukushima, with opposition in some countries being very high, notably in Germany (79%), but also, perhaps surprisingly, France (67%), and in most of the so- called BRIC countries: Brazil (69%) Russia (62%) India (39%) and China (58%). India was the odd one out, but opposition is still in the majority: a BBC /GlobeScan poll, carried out in July-Sept 2011, found support fell from 33% to 23% after Fukushima.

However there were also some other exceptions, where opposition was roughly balanced or, in some cases, overtaken, by support, the UK being one, the USA another. It is hard to see any clear reasons for these patterns. Instead we are evidently faced with a series of beliefs. For example, some feel that radiation exposure even at low levels poses a serious threat. Others believe that nuclear is cheaper than renewables. Others again seem to be seduced by the 'high tech' image of nuclear, although Fukushima may have undermined this. After all, many say that 'If Japan can't mange it safely, who can?'

The new book I've produced concludes by looking at the power of major events in changing views, as revealed by Fukushima. And also at the role of trust in making sense of risks- who can you believe, given the continuing debate over nuclear safety and heath impacts. It is pretty clear that there are uncertainties about what energy future we should be heading for. Tragically, it could be that big unexpected events like Fukushima may succeed in changing policy and viewpoints more rapidly than rational energy and strategic analysis. While the scale of the health impacts may have been overstated by some, the key issue is that, despite assurances from the authorities, many feel that we still do not know for sure. And it is the uncertainty that for many is the major worry: fear of radiation has an immense psychological impact. There are many other reasons to be concerned about nuclear power, many of them quite persuasive (for example the increasingly worsening economics), but it could be that events like Fukushima will be its undoing.

A major long running US NRC study of reactor safety, which started in 2007, was finally published earlier this year. It looked at PWRs and Fukushima type BWRs, which the US also uses, assessing possible accident chains, including loss of power. It claimed that existing resources and procedures could stop an accident, slow it down or reduce its impact before it could affect the public, but even if accidents proceed without such mitigation they would take much longer to happen and release much less radioactive material than earlier analyses suggested. Unfortunately Fukushima seemed to disprove all that. A rueful appendix was added to the US report saying that Fukushima had 'both similarities and differences' with their severe accident scenarios.

The Japanese government's advisory committee for the prevention of nuclear accidents was more straight forward: "The overconfidence of the government and the licensee in their safety measures could not prevent [a] severe accident, which cause[d] massive discharge of radioactive materials to the environment and destroy[ed] communities of local citizens."

The accident certainty seems to have changed views. German Chancellor Angela Merkel commented that Fukushima 'has forever changed the way we define risk', while Japans then Prime Minister Naoto Kan commented that 'Through my experience of the March 11 accident, I came to realize the risk of nuclear energy is too high. It involves technology that cannot be controlled according to our conventional concept of safety.'

With perceptions like this and the generally negative view of the technology that many people now share, it may be that governments around the world will find it increasingly hard to ignore pubic opposition, especially also given the rise and appeal of the alternative, less risky and more sustainable, renewable energy technologies. The bottom line may be company reactions. EDF and now Hitachi still seem keen to go ahead with nuclear projects in the UK, perhaps since they can no longer easily do that in their own countries, but Siemens and SSE have already decided to get out of nuclear. And when E.ON withdrew from the UK Horizon nuclear programme earlier this year, along with RWE, it said: 'We have come to the conclusion that investments in renewable energies, decentralised generation and energy efficiency are more attractive - both for us and for our British customers.'

My new book 'Fukushima: impacts and implications' is published by Palgrave Macmillan as part of their new Pivot e-book initiative.

Also see

  • Public opinion in the UK is still divided over the nuclear issue, with some critics arguing that we have not been well served by the media. I look at that issue in my book. It's good in that context to see that the BBC has admitted that the claim in its 'Bang Goes the Theory' TV programme last year, that there would only be 122 deaths due to Chernobyl was 'misleading' and 'was presented as definitive when there is general agreement that estimates in this area are uncertain'.