Ten years on from the Fukushima disaster, Jeremy Gordon asks whether policy effects on other countries will soon disappear

The Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan, ten years ago, spurred several countries to rethink their nuclear power programmes. 

The plant was already crippled by the time the waves of the tsunami had receded, and within a week the all the physical damage had been done. Soon after that the effects of the Fukushima accident were felt through the Japanese nuclear sector, then through its whole power sector. They were followed by a wave of policy implications that spread worldwide.

[Cartoon by Alexy Kovynev : “In general, we are not afraid of nuclear but who will control the reactor after a lunch?”]

Some of the policy impacts have been severe and permanent — the early loss of German nuclear plants for example — but there are signs that, a decade later, other policy disruptions are rebalancing and returning to the norm.

France – will it remove the cap on nuclear?

In Europe arguably the biggest impact was on France, where the bad news of the accident collided with poor business performance for nuclear and a presidential election in which the winner, Francois Hollande, had felt the need to court Green votes. The result has been a soul-destroying decade for the industry, in which it was officially sidelined and marked for a serious reduction in its role. Cutting nuclear energy toward the target of no more than 50% of electricity has meant shutting down older plants, wasting good work already undertaken on their life extension, and generally sending a message to the nuclear sector that it was not wanted any more.

Thankfully it has not taken too long for the nonsense of closing existing low-carbon nuclear in order to spend money on low-carbon renewables to go out of favour. But even though he has put back the deadline for nuclear’s decline to 50% by ten years, President Emmanuel Macron still faces a difficult manoeuvre if he is to change the law back to remove the cap on nuclear power.

The question of whether France should keep building nuclear plants is also a difficult one, even though it is not closely linked to the Fukushima accident. The French government should already have all the information it needs to make a decision next year on a potential wave of new build, but Macron needs to win an election first, in April 2022. If he wins, he will be deciding not just whether France needs six more reactors, but also whether its new-build skills should be given one last chance. Beyond that, his decision will determine whether France and the European Union will stay in the business of building and selling nuclear power plants at all.

Industry should hope that these high stakes would make the reversal of French nuclear’s fortunes even more dramatic. A positive decision might not only remove the cap on nuclear, but also create a doubled-down pro-nuclear policy with new-build at home, small modular reactor (SMR) plans and a strategic link for nuclear to hydrogen.

Germans and Swiss stick to nuclear phaseouts, but sentiments shift in Italy 

Like Germany, Switzerland remains steadfast on a phase-out policy that makes no economic or environmental sense. There is little sign of an easing of the anti-nuclear stance, even as the absurdity of using further fossil fuels to enable nuclear phase out becomes ever more obvious.

The units lost in Germany have been more than made up for by new-build in China, even though Chinese expansion slowed in the immediate wake of the Fukushima accident. Approval times for new plants stretched and a series of plants slated for inland sites were postponed indefinitely. Construction always continued, however, as did innovation and the country’s steady progress on small reactors. Those river sites are now back on the agenda and going through the early stages of approval.

The impacts on Italy were interesting. There had been a push from 2008 to re-introduce nuclear and to enable that a series of legal changes had been made. However, a referendum affirming the public’s support for a nuclear programme was required to overturn the opposite result from a 1986 referendum that was held shortly after the Chernobyl accident. The same thing happened again in June 2011 when the new referendum communicated a resounding ‘No’ to nuclear just weeks after the Fukushima accident and when concern over the state of the plant was still high.

If proximity in time to the accident was not enough, another question on the same referendum ballot asked if it would be okay for government ministers to be immune from prosecution. This resulted in a lot of campaigning around the word ‘No’ and a general mood in keeping with that.

In a visit to Milan shortly before the referendum, I was told that Italian people are not afraid of nuclear and have enough trust in their fellow technicians and scientists to manage something as serious as a nuclear power plant. It was the integrity of the governance around such a thing that people did not trust.

But now, a new poll has shown that one third of Italians would be in favour of reconsidering the nuclear question for a third time and a similar amount would already support its use. The poll was commissioned by Comitato Nucleare e Ragione (Committee on Nuclear and Reason), which formed shortly after the Fukushima accident “to counter overwhelming misinformation” being spread at the time. However, the quality of information is still not high: 59 percent of people polled said they know little or nothing about nuclear, which has not been a topic of public discussion in the last decade. Perhaps we should not put too much stock in their views just yet.

South Korean presidential elections are key for nuclear future

South Korea is where the ripples from Fukushima took the longest to reach shore. Although the government in office during March 2011 did not waver in its pro-nuclear policy, it was undermined in 2012 by a corruption scandal as well as a ‘loss of power’ incident during a shutdown at Kori 1, which was found to have been covered up. This was exacerbated by the success of the movie Pandora in 2016, which showed a nuclear accident following an earthquake. 

The result was a pact by all seven candidates in the May 2017 presidential election to phase out nuclear power. President Moon Jae-in was the one elected and that is exactly what he set about doing. Within a year, early shutdowns had been scheduled and new-build plans cancelled, though one part-constructed unit was sensibly allowed to be completed.

Quite a lot of damage was done to Korea’s domestic industry, even as the government behaved as if it was still committed to exports such as the hugely successful project in the UAE. 

It was hard to reconcile Moon’s goals with South Korea’s situation: the country still did not have any significant energy resources of its own to replace nuclear; a policy to export nuclear was not believable given a phase-out policy at home; the waste of a full domestic supply chain for nuclear power plants was criminal; and the proposal to import gas from Russia using a pipeline through North Korea was insane. And how was Korea to get to net zero by 2050, when coal was still 40% of supply in 2020 with no plan to phase it out? The value of the anti-nuclear policy, if there is any value, was as an exercise to remind Korean leaders why the nuclear power plants were built in the first place.

Now, in the lead-up to a presidential election in 2022, newspaper editorials are bluntly calling out the folly of current policies and candidates are clearly stating that they would get back to supporting nuclear as soon as possible. The high tide of anti-nuclearism in Korea has already been passed and the waters are receding fast.

Everything in the nuclear industry takes a long time. The exception may be the way the Fukushima accident changed the global outlook in a flash and caused painful destabilisation. Ten years on could it be that some of the worst disruptions are about to subside and we will return to the norm? 

Jeremy Gordon is an independent communication consultant with 15 years of experience in the international energy industry. His company Fluent in Energy supports partners of all kinds to communicate matters of clean energy and sustainable development.

Cartoon by Alexy Kovynev