The experiences of Chernobyl and Fukushima have led many to question the place of nuclear energy on today’s agenda. And yet, in this era of “nuclear renaissance,” the need to safeguard energy security is proving instrumental.
April 26th 1986 marks a significant date in the timeline of nuclear energy. Causing an estimated 5000 total deaths, the explosion of the Chernobyl power plant shook the world’s perceptions of nuclear energy, calling into question the reliability and safety of equipment everywhere. But the fear and public outcry were only temporary. Soon after, nuclear energy reappeared on many national agendas and reached a historic peak 10 years later, comprising 17.6% of the world’s energy.
Fast forward to March 2011. Less than two months before the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, the world was stunned once more when an earthquake and resulting tsunami led to Japan’s worst nuclear crisis. While matching Chernobyl as a level seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the Fukushima disaster surpassed in terms of radiation fallout, which equated to 168.5 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. As Japan faced mounting accusations of sheltering an inadequate safety culture, public acceptance of civilian nuclear energy plummeted, triggering the revaluation of national energy regimes. Germany shut down 17 of its operational reactors, announcing a complete nuclear phase-out by 2022, Switzerland agreed to phase out 5 of its aging power reactors and Italy withdrew all future nuclear plans.
But the trend stopped there. It is now 2019, and nuclear energy continues to provide about 11% of the world’s electricity from roughly 450 reactors worldwide. While the US, France, China, and Russia are the largest producers, Bangladesh, Belarus, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey are all constructing their first nuclear power plants. And, as was the case following Chernobyl, much of the dismay and opposition which so forcefully gripped the public in the wake of Fukushima, has seemingly disappeared. In fact, societal support is strong – a poll conducted by Bisconti-Quest in 2015 found that 83% of Americans residing closest to nuclear power plants favoured their construction.
But why the shift in tone? Yury Yudin attributes factors such as increasing global demand for energy, a growing awareness of the environmental effects of fossil fuels, and geopolitical motives as propelling this “nuclear renaissance.” A consequence of rapid population growth and economic expansion in emerging states, energy demand is expected to double between now and 2035. As one of the cheapest and most efficient forms of energy, it is easy to understand why going “nuclear” is in the interests of many countries looking to diversify supplies and pursue self-reliance. But it will only remain so if a strong safety culture is fostered in the process. Chernobyl and Fukushima are a testimony to the inherent risks in nuclear production, and the serious threats posed by substandard safety practices. Let’s just hope it does not take another nuclear disaster to remind us of this.
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