LONDON: Nuclear industry was dealt a big blow on Friday when two of the most nuclear-friendly countries decided to exit or sharply curb their reliance on the technology following a public opinion backlash after the Fukushima accident in Japan last year.
Japan, which produced more than 10 percent of the global nuclear power before Fukushima, joins Germany, Switzerland and Belgium in deciding to shut down their nuclear plants and to spend money on renewable energy instead.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced on Friday his country would pull out of nuclear power by the 2030s and triple the share of renewable sources to 30 percent of its energy mix.
"If you were looking at investing in an energy source at the moment, why would you invest in nuclear when you've just seen two major countries turning off their plants?" said Richard George, energy campaigner at Greenpeace.
Japan's exit and France's renewed pledge to reduce nuclear power to 50 percent of its electricity capacity by 2025 sends an anti-nuclear message to countries which have been undecided about what stance to take on the technology.
The industry saw a renaissance over the past decade when governments across the globe stepped up efforts to reduce carbon, of which nuclear emits none.
The industry promotes its technology as a reliable alternative to polluting fossil-fuel plants and less expensive than renewable power projects such as offshore wind farms.
"You've got to go back to the fundamentals of why nuclear is important. It's the drive towards low-carbon technology and nuclear will provide you that in large baseload amounts," David Powell, vice president of the European region at US-Japanese nuclear joint venture GE Hitachi, told Reuters in an interview. GE Hitachi is involved in major new build projects around the world.
GAS TO GAIN
The Fukushima accident in March 2011, the worst such event in 25 years, revived fears of nuclear radiation contamination and billions of euros in cost overruns to build new nuclear plants in Europe have put a question mark over the technology's cost competitiveness.
The growing anti-nuclear feeling is likely to further dent the order books of the world's major nuclear power players, such as France's Areva or Westinghouse, majority-owned by Japan's Toshiba, with forecasts for new nuclear capacity already projected to fall by 12 percent by 2020.
At a major nuclear energy conference in London this week, which was scarcely attended by German companies, executives said the sector needed to redefine itself and regain the public's trust.
"I am scared by the decisions in Japan and France because these are short-term visions influenced by public pressure," said Francois Perchet, technical adviser at the World Nuclear University and formerly employed at France's EDF.
"These people will be judged in 2080 for acting in their own interest instead of that of the planet." Other analysts say that Japan and France are well placed to deal with the results of their decisions.
"Regulators (in Japan and France) are not being irresponsible because with gas generation there is a credible alternative," Luis Uriza, of consultancy Bain & Company said.
"Japan is already one of the world's biggest gas importers and is experienced in the market, and France has many options, including imports from the North Sea, Russia, Africa and the Middle East or even to develop its own large shale gas reserves."
Uriza said export capacity improvements in the global gas sector made the political moves in Japan, France and Germany possible.
"The gas industry made a lot of progress in terms of new export capacities in the past years, so this is good news for new producers in Australia, North America, the Middle East and East Africa," he said.
Despite the Fukushima setback, some countries are pursuing nuclear energy and plan to build new reactors.
Both the US and British governments plan to build several new nuclear power plants within a decade, and major emerging economies such as China and India as well as countries in the Middle East are forging plans to see nuclear as part of their future energy mix.