Germany has temporarily shut down seven nuclear power plants that began operating before 1980, and the government has promised to study ways to speed up the adoption of renewable energy in the wake of the catastrophic events in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power stations. After an emergency meeting of senior energy officials and industry representatives on Tuesday, European Union members have agreed to conduct earthquake “stress tests” of nuclear plants across the EU. Besides seismic activity, threats from tsunamis, terrorism, technical failures and heatwaves will be examined.
“The unthinkable has occurred”
On Monday, EU energy commissioner Günther Oettinger stated about the situation in Japan: “The unthinkable has occurred. Energy policy faces a fundamental new beginning.” The stress tests — which are not compulsory but were not opposed — are expected to be conducted in the second half of 2011.
The seven plants to be closed at least through June produce one-third of Germany’s nuclear energy. The plant closures come after German Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered safety checks on the country’s nuclear power stations. This past weekend, tens of thousands protested Germany government plans to extend the life of 17 aging nuclear plants for an additional 12 years. As a result, the German government announced a three-month delay in its decision to keep the 17 nuclear stations open. Nuclear energy provides 25% of Germany’s electricity.
France Stands Firm
France is participating in a safety check but has no immediate plans to draw back from nuclear, which supplies 75% of the country’s energy — the highest percentage of any country. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon noted, “What strength earthquake can our reactors survive? What level of flooding can they deal with? We will check all of this, and we will do so with total transparency. It’s just as absurd to say that nuclear energy is condemned by this accident as to say that it does not concern us.”
Energy Secretary Chu Reassures Congress
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told Congress on Tuesday that nuclear power needs to be an important part of the country’s energy policy, stating, “The American people should have full confidence that the United States has rigorous safety regulations in place to ensure that our nuclear power is generated safely and responsibly.”
In 2008 the average age of the world 400+ nuclear power plants was 24; the average lifetime of the plants is around 40 years. In the U.S., 20% of energy is suppled by nuclear power.
An Uncertain Future Is Certain
Nuclear energy has been touted as a viable alternative to fossil fuel-based energy, with its atmosphere-damaging carbon emissions. The Japanese situation is sure to put the brakes on efforts to ramp up nuclear as a viable alternative to coal and gas-powered energy. Renewable energy technologies, including wind, solar, wave and geothermal, account for only a small percentage of world energy generation. One thing seems certain: hardships lie ahead, and we will need multi-pronged, flexible and focused approaches to meeting the world’s energy needs for decades to come.
Photo: Nuclear power plant in Grohnde, Germany
By Heinz-Josef Lücking (own work / eigenes Bild) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons