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Nuclear Energy Still Debated One Year After Fukushima

Despite the emotions aroused by the Fukushima disaster, a year later the debate over nuclear energy continues.
By Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 3/13/2012, 2:47 PM

Antinuclear Rally
Antinuclear Rally
Reuters

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster.

Last year the pictures of the disaster site and the repercussions for the Japanese citizens created a strong backlash against the use of nuclear energy. A year later, emotions have cooled and antinuclear demonstrators are trying to rekindle the sense of horror and indignation.

In France 60,000 demonstrators formed a 230 km human chain in the Rhone Valley, where a large part of the French nuclear industry is concentrated.

The need for the demonstrations shows that last year's effect is wearing off and  the backers of nuclear power are feeling renewed confidence.

In Japan itself, 259 Japanese citizens filed suit (a striking action, given the Japanese aversion to litigation) to prevent the reopening of nuclear power plants in the Osaka area.  Japan, facing problems with its balance of payments caused by spiraling energy costs and energy shortages, will probably reinstate the reactors. Japan has also been plagued by rising CO2 levels, caused by the replacement of nuclear energy by fossil fuels.

Japan's Yukio Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who has been in the headlines over Iran, believes that the efforts to do away with nuclear energy will fail, although the use of nuclear power will grow at a slower rate than originally envisaged.

Among the reasons he cites for continued reliance on nuclear energy are concerns over climate change produced by fossil fuels, the rising prices of fossil fuels and the rising demand that cannot be met in the short term by green sources of energy.

For Amano, the main lessons to be learned are increased precautions designed to safeguard the reactors even in far-fetched scenarios. Amano reminded readers that Fukushima itself managed to withstand a severe earthquake, actually outperforming specifications, but could not cope with a crippling tsunami.

In nearby South Korea, the nuclear issue will be a factor in next month's parliamentary elections. The opposition Democratic United party (DU P), leading in the pollls, has pledged to scale back plans to build additional reactors.

Energy starved South Korea has 21 reactors supplying one third of its energy and plans to augment that number by an additional 13 reactors by 2024. Another consideration for South Korea is that nuclear reactors themselves constitute an export item.

Germany recorded the most dramatic turnabout following Fukushima. Chancellor Angela Merke,l responding both to the pictures from Fukushima as well as to the sharp spike in support for the German Green party, pledged to phase out all nuclear power in a decade - a 180 degree turnabout.

Despite impressive investments in renewable energy, it now appears doubtful that Germany can make the transition successfully to green energy by its target date. Part of the problem is infrastructures and the need to build power lines, bogged down in objections. In the meantime, Germany - like Japan - is recording higher carbon dioxide levels.

Even if Germany succeeds it still confronts the prospect of Poland building reactors 100 miles away from its border.