The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 cost the lives of almost 16,000 people. Moreover, with a magnitude of 9.0Mw it is the most powerful known earthquake ever to have hit Japan. Taken in isolation, the tragic toll of human life would have been more than enough for any nation to bear. However, subsequent events at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, served only to add to the legacy of destruction left by this natural disaster.
Despite the magnitude of the accident – and it would be both pointless and short-sighted to ignore, or to try to marginalise, its significance – the momentum of nuclear energy adoption within other EU member states has remained virtually unchanged.
The earthquake and tsunami caused severe damage to the power station by disabling its reactor cooling systems. This damage resulted in nuclear radiation leaks that forced the Japanese authorities to evacuate all citizens within a 30km radius of the plant. The incident at Fukushima Daiichi was the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster, which occurred almost a quarter of a century previously.
The earthquake induced far-reaching aftershocks that were both geological and political in nature. Within Europe, for example, Germany and Switzerland took measures to scale back and phase out nuclear energy generation. Whether or not such decisions represent overreactions in the wake of Fukushima remains an issue of vigorous debate.
I spoke to Mats Ladeborn, President of the European Atomic Forum (FORATOM), to gauge his perspective of the current nuclear energy landscape within the European Union (EU). I began by asking him whether he believed that the events of Fukushima had significantly affected the state of nuclear energy production in Europe.
"I would say both yes and no," he replied. "The loss of life that occurred as a direct consequence of the earthquake and tsunami was a terrible tragedy, and the subsequent nuclear accident was a major catastrophe. Unsurprisingly, political reaction across Europe was quick to follow. Germany aims to phase out its nuclear energy production by 2022, Italy reversed its decision to offer a planned referendum on nuclear power, and Switzerland has decided not to renew its nuclear energy fleet when it reaches the end of its operational lifespan. Indeed, 'Learning lessons from Fukushima', became an oft repeated mantra.
"However, despite the magnitude of the accident – and it would be both pointless and short-sighted to ignore, or to try to marginalise, its significance – the momentum of nuclear energy adoption within other EU member states has remained virtually unchanged. Countries such as France, Finland, Slovakia, the United Kingdom, Romania and Poland thrust ahead with their planned and existing construction projects. Although there were some sharp initial declines in popular support for nuclear energy, acceptance levels across Europe have held up well, on the whole. Indeed, in the United Kingdom, where an ambitious new building programme is in place, public acceptance of nuclear energy recovered quickly, and it is now higher than it was before the events of Fukushima.
"In short, I do not expect the nuclear landscape to remain the same going forward. Our industry must learn lessons from Fukushima, and I believe that it is doing so. What will remain is the demand for secure, competitive and low-carbon baseload energy, and I think that nuclear power can play an important role in securing Europe's energy future."
I went on to ask about the advantages that nuclear power has over other energy resources. Although he is a dedicated proponent of nuclear energy, Ladeborn contends that the more energy options there are available to Europe, the better.
"I think that it is important for us to encourage many different types of energy resources going forward. However, nuclear energy does possess a number of important advantages. Firstly, it provides a secure, uninterrupted source of baseload energy, and in contrast with the intermittent natures of wind and solar energies, this is advantageous. Also, wind and solar resources require much more land in order to produce comparable amounts of energy.
"However, I think that perhaps the biggest advantage of nuclear energy is that it's a proven technology at a global level. It has the power to provide emission-free and affordable electricity through existing infrastructures. Nuclear energy could provide the building blocks for Europe's future, and much of the necessary work has already been done."
Of course, part of FORATOM's mission is to communicate its message concerning the benefits of nuclear power to a European audience. I asked Ladeborn whether he thought that the public's understanding of nuclear energy was adequate.
"Not really," he answered. "From a general perspective, I don't think enough citizens know a sufficient amount about nuclear energy and its advantages. The evidence suggests that the more that people know about nuclear energy, the more they are in favour of it.
"There exists a lot of misunderstanding about nuclear energy and the only way we can prevent and improve this situation is to communicate with objectivity, honesty and humility. We have to be very open in our communications, and I think that it would be a mistake to only communicate facts. We must also be clear about the enduring values of our industry – namely, our dedication to the pursuit of safe, stable production, in order to ensure secure, sustainable and affordable energy that contributes to Europe's competitiveness."
Of course, in order for any energy resource to be ultimately successful, the support of policymakers is essential. I asked Ladeborn whether he was satisfied with EU policy in the field of nuclear energy.
"In regard to EU nuclear policy, it primarily consists of directives concerning safety and waste. Apart from that, one cannot really speak of an EU nuclear policy, as such. Essentially, it is up to the individual member states to decide whether or not to exploit nuclear energy.
"Nuclear energy is of course part of the European Commission's Energy Roadmap 2050, in which different scenarios outline how Europe should be able to meet sustainable energy targets. I do think that nuclear energy's potential contribution to a decarbonised European economy could be better recognised within the Roadmap, although nuclear energy forms part of all of the Commission's envisaged scenarios going forward, and I think that that is very positive. Perhaps the range of options should be reiterated in the future."
I concluded our conversation by asking Ladeborn what he would like to see in terms of future policy.
"I think that it's important for each member state to make its own decision in regard to nuclear energy. In the coming years, we will have huge challenges to overcome if we are to achieve a sustainable and decarbonised Europe. At the same time, we need to invest in the improvement of infrastructures, and we need to phase out old production units.
"Most of all, I would like to see policymakers exploit the full potential of nuclear energy in the creation of a decarbonised European economy. The security and competitiveness offered by nuclear energy could be better recognised. It will also be particularly important to streamline the processes involved in getting permits for new production units and for improving infrastructures."