Tokyo Electric Power Co's Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear power
plant, the world's biggest, is sitting idle in the wake of
the Fukushima disaster 20 months ago. Photo from Reuters.
After the loss of 10 million American lives in the
Three-Mile Island calamity in 1979, the death of two billion in
the Chernobyl holocaust in 1986, and now the abandonment of all
of northern Japan following the death of millions in last
year's Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, it is hardly surprising
that the world's biggest users of nuclear power are shutting
their plants down.
Oh, wait a minute ... This just in! Nobody died in the
Three-Mile Island calamity, 28 plant workers were killed and
15 other people subsequently died of thyroid cancer in the
Chernobyl holocaust, and nobody died in the Fukushima
catastrophe. In fact, northern Japan has not been evacuated
after all. But never mind all that. They really are shutting
their nuclear plants down.
They have already shut them down in Japan. All of the
country's 50 nuclear reactors were closed for safety checks
after the tsunami damaged the Fukushima plant, and only two
have reopened so far. The Government, which was previously
planning to increase nuclear's share of the national energy
mix to half by 2030, has now promised to close every nuclear
power plant in Japan permanently by 2040.
The new Japanese plan says that the country will replace the
missing nuclear energy with an eightfold increase in
renewable energy (wind, solar, etc), and "the development of
sustainable ways to use fossil fuels". But going from 4% to
30% renewables in the energy mix will take decades, and
nobody has yet found an economically sustainable way to
sequester the greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil
The truth is that as the Arctic sea ice melts and grain
harvests are devastated by heat waves and drought, the
world's third largest user of nuclear energy has decided to
go back to emitting lots and lots of carbon dioxide.
In Germany, where the Greens have been campaigning against
nuclear power for decades, Chancellor Angela Merkel has done
a U-turn and promised to close all the country's nuclear
reactors by 2022. She also promised to replace them with
renewable power sources, of course, but the reality there
will also be that the country burns more fossil fuels.
Belgium is also shutting down its nuclear plants, and Italy
has abandoned its plans to build some.
Even France, which has taken 80% of its power from nuclear
power plants for decades without the slightest problem, is
joining the panic. President Francois Hollande's new
Government has promised to lower the country's dependence on
nuclear energy to 50% of the national energy mix.
But you can see why he and his colleagues had to do it. After
all, nuclear energy is a kind of witchcraft, and the public
The Greens prattle about replacing nuclear power with
renewables, which might come to pass in some distant future.
But the brutal truth for now is that closing down the nuclear
plants will lead to a sharp rise in greenhouse gas emissions,
in precisely the period when the race to cut emissions and
avoid a rise in average global temperature of more than 2degC
will be won or lost.
Fortunately, their superstitious fears are largely absent in
more sophisticated parts of the world. Only four new nuclear
reactors are under construction in the European Union, and
only one in the United States, but there are 61 being built
elsewhere. Over two-thirds of them are being built in the
BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), where economies are
growing fast and governments are increasingly concerned about
both pollution and climate change.
But it's not enough to outweigh the closure of so many
nuclear plants in the developed world, at least in the short
India may be aiming at getting 50% of its energy from nuclear
power by 2050, for example, but the fact is that only 3.7% of
its electricity is nuclear right now.
So the price of nuclear fuel has collapsed in the past four
years, and uranium mine openings and expansions have been
More people die from coal pollution each day than have been
killed by 50 years of nuclear power operations - and that's
just from lung disease. If you include future deaths from
global warming due to burning fossil fuels, closing down
nuclear power stations is sheer madness.
Welcome to the Middle Ages.
• Gwynne Dyer is an independent London