MADRID – Seen from Europe, the irrationality of the political and media discourse over nuclear energy has, if anything, increased and intensified in the year since the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Yet a dispassionate assessment of nuclear energy’s place in the world remains as necessary as it is challenging.
Europeans should not pontificate on nuclear-energy policy as if our opinion mattered worldwide, but we do. On the other hand, Europe does have a qualified responsibility in the area of security, where we still can promote an international regulatory and institutional framework that would discipline states and bring about greater transparency where global risks like nuclear power are concerned.
Europe is equally responsible for advancing research on more secure technologies, particularly a fourth generation of nuclear-reactor technology. We Europeans cannot afford the luxury of dismantling a high-value-added industrial sector in which we still have a real comparative advantage.
In Europe, Fukushima prompted a media blitz of gloom and doom over nuclear energy. The German magazine Der Spiegel heralded the “9/11 of the nuclear industry” and “the end of the nuclear era,” while Spain’s leading newspaper El Pais preached that supporting “this energy [was] irrational,” and that “China has put a brake on its nuclear ambitions.” But reality has proven such assessments to be both biased and hopelessly wrong.
True, a few countries – Belgium, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, with Peru the only non- European country to join the trend – formally declared their intention to phase out or avoid nuclear energy. These decisions affect a total of 26 reactors, while 61 reactors are under construction around the world, with another 156 projected and 343 under official consideration. If these plans are realized, the number of functioning reactors, currently 437, will double.
But, more interestingly, the nuclear boom is not global: Brazil is at the forefront in Latin America, while the fastest development is occurring in Asia, mostly in China and India. If we compare this geographical distribution with a global snapshot of nuclear sites prior to the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in the United States in 1979, a striking correlation emerges between countries’ nuclear-energy policy and their geopolitical standing and economic vigor.
Whereas the appetite for reactors in the 1970’s reflected the international heft of the Soviet Union, and principally that of the geopolitical West – Japan, the US, and Europe – today the center of gravity has shifted irrevocably to the East, where nuclear energy has become a “gateway to a prosperous future,” in the telling words of a November 2011 commentary in The Hindu. Indeed, US President Barack Obama, evidently agreeing with that view, has boldly bet that loan guarantees and research into creating small modular reactors will reconfirm America’s global position at the forefront of civilian nuclear technology and its relevance in the new global order.
Energy is, of course, the bloodline of any society, reflected in the correlation between energy demand and income. In this respect, nuclear energy’s advantages, particularly its reliability and predictable costs, stand out. The International Energy Agency’s 2010 World Energy Outlook foresees a rise in global energy demand of 40% by 2030 – an unforgiving reality that is most tangibly felt in developing countries, particularly in Asia.