Without a doubt the most significant story this year had to be the terrible tragedy in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 and the crippling of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

This one event immediately forced every country in the world to reexamine its energy policies and the role nuclear will play going forward.

Nuclear’s strength is that reactors run 24/7, unlike solar and wind generators. They provide huge amounts of continuous and reliable electricity, so-called baseload power. Moreover, they do not emit greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane.  Natural gas and coal plants also provide baseload power but they produce significant amounts of greenhouse gases.

Not surprisingly, shaken by the disaster, Japan has said it will not build any more nuclear plants.  Others, like Germany, Switzerland and Italy, have also abandoned nuclear and have charted a new course focused on 100% renewable energy sources like wind and solar. In the short to medium term, however, they are most likely to have to abandon their greenhouse emission goals and rely on coal and natural gas for backup power until reliable large-scale energy storage technology is developed.  The world is watching these countries intently to see if they have made a wise choice.

Other countries have not yet abandoned nuclear but they are re-examining their safety standards and making them tougher for any new applications to build reactors.  Some are even looking at safer types of fission reactors that do not rely on radioactive uranium. Thorium is one alternative that is being considered and India has announced its intention to build a test reactor. Meanwhile Bill Gates is discussing with China the idea of using safer depleted uranium to fuel nuclear reactors.

Whatever the outcome, the word “Fukushima” will send chills down everyone’s spine for decades to come.  It is our story of the year.

 

 

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