LONDON -- Global public opinion has switched off nuclear power since the disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant a year ago, bringing an abrupt halt to what the industry had for years been hailing as the nuclear renaissance.
For China, which is engaged in the world's biggest nuclear power program, it is an issue that policymakers must struggle with. China has 15 nuclear power plants now operating and plans in place for another 65 to be either operating, under construction or awaiting permission by 2020.
"Public opinion reversed after Fukushima. It is now 58 percent against and 42 percent in favor. It was the opposite before. It is a big problem for us," Wang Jun, chief engineer of the State Nuclear Power Corporation, told ClimateWire on the margins of a nuclear energy industry meeting held here last week.
But like the rest of the nuclear power industry, China is determined to press ahead with what it sees as the only viable major low-carbon source of baseload electricity to supply its 1.4 billion people in a decarbonizing world.
"In China, there is no alternative to new nuclear. Wind, solar are just too small," Wang explained, adding that the Chinese government has instituted a program to sell nuclear power to its skeptical public, including taking farmers on tours of nuclear plants in a bid to reassure them of their safety.
Globally, selling nuclear will not be an easy task, as many of the speakers and members of the audience from around the world stressed at the Royal Society's Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century meeting.
Even in South Korea, where public attitudes toward nuclear power are strongly favorable, there is no such acceptance when it comes to finding somewhere to keep the highly toxic waste. Riots have erupted wherever the government has tried to broach the issue.
An Ipsos MORI opinion poll taken since Fukushima showed that a large majority of people in China, France -- which gets nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear -- Italy, Germany, Japan and Russia oppose nuclear power plants, with India strongly in favor and both the United Kingdom and the United States more or less evenly divided.
Watching the German 'experiment'
Germany, in particular, in what one speaker at the meeting referred to as an "experiment," reversed a law post-Fukushima that in itself had been overturning a decision to phase out its nuclear power plants. As things stand, it will have no more nuclear power after 2022.
Nuclear power, which accounts for around 18 percent of the country's electricity production, will leave a huge gap if it does not recover. For example, while Germany has made great strides in both wind and solar energy due to huge incentives from the government, the support levels are being slashed, leaving open the question of how it will fill the post-2022 power gap.
Many talk of natural gas, which has half the carbon emissions of coal, while others talk of carbon capture and storage being the clean answer. But the Bundesrat, the country's upper house of parliament, in September rejected a law that would have made the technology eligible for support from the European Union. Without that, at least in its initial stages, carbon capture would be economically nonviable.
"We will be watching the German experiment on moving away from nuclear power with great interest," said geography professor Geoffrey Boulton of Edinburgh University in Scotland, one of the two-day meeting's organizers. "If it collapses, it will send one signal. If it succeeds, it will send quite another one."
He said the nuclear power industry had to do a far better job globally of selling its safety record to the public, which had grown very wary after three major nuclear accidents -- Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979, Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986 and Fukushima last March.
"We have got to deal with the legacy of public distrust in institutions and the industry," he said.
The United Kingdom, which has had a civil nuclear program since the mid-1950s and gets about 16 percent of its electricity from atomic power, is also facing a crucial decision on what to do when the last of its nuclear plants is closed due to age in 2035.
Unfinished business in the U.K.
Professor Nick Pidgeon, a psychologist at Cardiff University in Wales, who has been studying attitudes to nuclear power for years, said: "Support for nuclear power in this country would not survive another Fukushima." He told the meeting that the only way it had been made palatable in recent years had been by framing it in the climate context.
The country's center-right coalition government has made it clear it wants a new fleet of nuclear plants built, citing its legal requirement to cut climate-changing carbon emissions and emphasizing energy security as oil and gas from the North Sea start to run out.
But Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron, under pressure from the coalition's traditionally anti-nuclear Liberal Democrats, has promised there will be no public money involved. The major energy utilities in the United Kingdom, including France's EDF and Germany's E.ON, while stating the desire to build new nuclear plants, have also made it clear they will not cover the multibillion-dollar upfront costs themselves without some serious price guarantees.
Since nuclear power doesn't produce greenhouse gases, the industry may get some financial support from emissions trading, but while negotiations are going on, the outcome remains unclear.
Meanwhile, environmental groups are circling for the kill. A group of four former leaders of the environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth has sent an open letter to Cameron and other nuclear-leaning British leaders asserting that France would benefit the most from a decision to support more nuclear power.
The French government owns the majority of EDF, which runs all of France's nuclear plants, owns eight of the existing U.K. fleet and has expressed interest in building four new ones using French technology.
"Viable options are available to meet our energy and climate security needs at much lower economic and political risk," the letter said.
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