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France, U.S., U.K. committed to nuke power, Germany resolutely opposed, Italy's plans on hold

G-8 differ in reactions to Fukushima

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

While the Group of Eight wrapped up their two-day summit in Deauville, France, by agreeing on the need to better define international standards for nuclear safety, its member nations differ in their reactions to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

While France, Russia, the U.S. and U.K. all remain committed to building new nuclear power plants, Germany has scrapped plans to extend the working lives of its reactors, reflecting how the Fukushima crisis has stoked worldwide concern, in some cases prompting nations to review their nuclear policies.

“The events in Japan confirm that there is a continuing need to re-evaluate safety and we recognize the importance of learning from the Fukushima accident and its aftermath,” the G-8 leaders said in a joint statement after their summit ended Friday.

While Prime Minister Naoto Kan used the summit to announce plans to host a global meeting on nuclear safety next year, and pledged to boost Japan’s usage of green energy to 20 percent of the nation’s total power supply by 2020, he also said nuclear power will remain one of the “pillars” of national energy policy.

“Politics and money are the most influential factors in formulating each nation’s stance toward nuclear energy,” Sophia University political science professor Koichi Nakano said, explaining that nations such as Germany and some Nordic countries where environmentalists have a strong say in politics would naturally be more reluctant to back the continued use of nuclear energy in the wake of a crisis.

“But nations such as France, which has a strong nuclear industry, will likely remain firm in their reliance on nuclear energy,” he said.

Germany is set to shut down its seven oldest reactors for good, and plans to eventually shut down all 17 of its reactors and replace them with renewable energy sources.

Chancellor Angela Merkel initially ordered an extension of the life of the plants but reversed her decision after the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, and said her Cabinet will decide June 6 on an end date for the reactors.

Outside the G-8, the government of Switzerland decided Wednesday not to replace the nation’s five nuclear power plants once they reach the end of their operating lives in the coming decades, and that the nation will rely on renewable energy and even fossil fuels to make up for the loss.

The first plant is to be shut down in 2019 and the final plant in 2034. Parliamentary debate on the plan is scheduled to begin June 8, with a final decision to be reached around mid-June.

In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced two years ago that the nation would go nuclear again after its four atomic power plants were shut down following a nationwide referendum in 1987.

But in the wake of the crisis at Fukushima, the government decided on a one-year moratorium on its plans to revive nuclear power, while antinuclear rallies drawing thousands have erupted in Italy in recent months.

However, despite signs of antinuclear movements spreading across the globe, the industry itself appears resilient to change.

In a recent magazine article, Tomoko Murakami, a researcher at the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, suggested that while Japan’s competitiveness in the international market for nuclear energy has weakened following the Fukushima crisis, this has only made room for other nuclear giants, including Areva of France, AEP of Russia and Westinghouse Electric. and General Electric of the U.S. to claim more market share.

“The market for nuclear power generation and development remains little changed in the ‘post-Fukushima’ world, and it is safe to say that the business strategy of companies will also remain unchanged,” she wrote.

In addition, Nakano of Sophia University said that despite avid protests following the Fukushima crisis, it is likely that the governments of rapidly developing nations such as India and China will march ahead with their nuclear expansion.

In India, where rapid growth has driven a strong need for energy and where plans are in motion to build the world’s largest nuclear plant in Jaitapur, antinuclear protests have intensified following March 11.

India currently has 20 nuclear plants in operation providing about 3 percent of the nation’s energy, but plans are in motion to supply 25 percent of its electricity from nuclear power by 2050.

China is also in the early stages of a large-scale nuclear expansion to help meet the demands of its growing economy, and to lessen its dependence on coal. China currently has 14 nuclear power reactors in operation, more than 25 under construction, and more planned for the near future.

“These governments will likely march on with their nuclear expansion, convincing their people that the Fukushima accident was a special, rare case, and by emphasizing the benefits of nuclear power as a clean source of energy and a safe alternative,” Nakano said.