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Is Japan's Meltdown Just A Bump In The Road?

By Theodora Filis

Will Japan’s nuclear crisis prompt other countries to suspend, scale back, or even quit nuclear power? Three Mile Island and Chernobyl stopped North America and Europe in their tracks. Could Fukushima do the same in Asia?

Not likely, not in Asia, say energy experts – China, India, Korea and Russia are building the vast majority of the world’s new nuclear reactors – some plans may be delayed, but they won’t be scrapped. “Unless Fukushima blows up, I doubt it will be significant enough to put them off,” says Malcolm Keay, Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. “Political opposition and the financial costs of nuclear are less than in OECD countries.”

Europe and North America feel differently, and safety concerns could push aging reactors into early retirement. Escalating costs associated with higher safety standards and anti-nuclear opposition could scare investors away from nuclear power. 
The UK gets nearly one half of its energy from nuclear power, Germany over one quarter, the United States one fifth. How will these countries keep the lights on? And what happens if old nuclear reactors are not renovated or replaced, what will fill the energy gaps left behind?

Natural gas is now the most likely substitute for nuclear energy say many analysts with new discoveries pointing to it being cheaper, readily available, fitting with existing infrastructure, and is “cleaner” than coal or oil. UK bank HSBC and French bank Societe Generale (SocGen) predicted natural gas to be the winner should voters and governments reject nuclear power. However, not all countries are like Japan, with natural gas infrastructure terminals, pipelines, and gas refineries. Those countries looking to get in on the “gas boom” will have to invest a lot of money, because it's not just a matter of switching off nuclear and switching on gas.

Traders told Reuters in April, that Germany temporarily shut down seven nuclear reactors in response to Fukushima, but has no natural gas terminals and limited gas infrastructure – so its utilities filled three quarters of the energy gap with coal. Coal is cheaper than gas and, when utility company profits are at stake, they may be tempted to use it. Other nuclear countries that rely heavily on coal are the United States, Japan, China and India. Coal, gas and oil would benefit from a nuclear phaseout. According to the Economist magazine,this scenario would not benefit the planet, adding about 2 billion tons of CO2 to the 9 billion tons emitted by electricity generators in 2009.

There is one other thought – nuclear’s loss becomes renewable's gain if governments and investors get serious about low-carbon energy. Solar power company stocks soared immediately after the Fukushima disaster. Unfortunately, wind and solar plants can not fill the energy gap entirely. The 2011 ‘Battle of the Grids’ report from environmental campaigners Greenpeace argues that Europe could get nearly 70 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030, and almost 100 percent by 2050.

Not all governments will react as negatively as Germany toward nuclear power, nor will they be as pro-nuclear as France. China, India, Russia and the United States are the key players deciding whether the world’s energy system becomes more or less atomic, and whether it becomes greener or gassier.

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