"Fukushima Killed the Nuclear Renaissance."
No. At first it looked like a natural disaster of epic proportions: shock waves rippling outward from a 9.0-magnitude earthquake off northeast Japan followed by a 30-foot tsunami, a one-two punch that all but obliterated the coastal city of Sendai and its environs. Then the electricity went off at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, and a random act of natural destruction became a parable of technological society run amok. Stories of tsunami-leveled villages gave way to harrowing accounts of nuclear engineers trying, and failing, to stop the meltdown of first one, then a second, and finally a third reactor at Fukushima.
We'd seen this movie twice before, of course: first in 1979, when inexperienced operators allowed a reactor to overheat and melt down at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and most apocalyptically in 1986, when the reactor meltdown at Chernobyl forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents of what is now Ukraine and Belarus and all but finished off the Soviet economy. And in the wake of the March 11 Fukushima meltdown, commentators predicted the end of an industry that seemed to have finally escaped the shadows of its two earlier disasters. "All nuclear operators," Moody's Investors Service warned in an early April report, "will suffer the consequences that emerge from a post-Fukushima environment."
Indeed, in Japan, where support for nuclear power predictably, and understandably, fell from two-thirds of the public to one-third after the meltdown, plans for 14 reactors slated for construction by 2030 were soon scrapped. Fukushima also tipped the scales in Switzerland's decision to phase out nuclear power by 2034 and contributed to more than 94 percent of Italian voters rejecting Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's June referendum on renewing nuclear power.
But these were the exceptions rather than the rule; Japan, in fact, was the only formerly pro-nuclear country to experience a change of heart after the accident. The United States is reviewing its safety procedures for nuclear power, but not changing course on it; overall support for the energy source among Americans has hovered around 50 percent since the early 1990s. In France, which gets 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, President Nicolas Sarkozy said shutting down reactors was "out of the question." And as for China, India, and South Korea -- countries with a growing appetite for nuclear power that account for the bulk of active plant construction -- only the first has put any of its nuclear plans on pause, and that's just pending a safety review. India and South Korea have vowed to tighten safety standards, but have otherwise forged ahead with plans for nuclear expansion.
Outside Japan, it was Germany that reacted most emphatically to Fukushima, with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets and Chancellor Angela Merkel declaring a phaseout of the country's nine existing nuclear plants. But most Germans were already staunchly against nuclear power before 2011 -- a legacy not of Fukushima, but of Chernobyl, whose 1986 meltdown rained down contamination 850 miles away in Bavaria. And though Merkel's political coalition was battered in subsequent elections by Germany's anti-nuclear Greens, the erosion of her popularity had in fact begun months earlier. Nor was Merkel's phaseout decision an entirely new direction; Germany had committed more than a decade ago not to build new plants.
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