Did Fukushima Change Anything?

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Feb. 25 2014 11:00 AM

Did Fukushima Change Anything?

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Members of the media and Tokyo Electric Power Co. employees wearing protective suits walk past storage tanks for radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Japan, on Nov. 7, 2013.

Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/AFP/Getty Images

Next month will make the three-year anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, and sadly, the disaster is still unfolding. Last week the operator of the plant announced that 100 tons of contaminated water had leaked out of a tank—the worst incident since a series of dangerous leaks last August. U.S. scientists are also currently working to determine whether radioactive material from the plant has reached the kelp beds off the California coast.

But in terms of the politics surrounding nuclear energy, the impact of the disaster appears to have been much smaller than many were anticipating at the time. Today, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, which had promised a “rethink” of Japan’s post-Fukushima pledge to close all of the country’s nuclear power plants, released a draft of a new energy plan which calls nuclear power an “important baseload electricity source” for the country, though it’s vague on how big of a role nuclear will play in the country’s energy load in the future.

Since Japan took its 48 commercial reactors offline to pass new safety requirements, the country has seen a 16 percent increase in crude oil imports, contributing to a record trade deficit.

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Around the world the expansion of nuclear power has continued largely unabated since Fukushima. A World Energy Council report released in 2012 showed that 558 reactors were in some state of development around the world, up from 547 at the time of the disaster. Major nuclear expansions in China (which lifted a post-Fukushima nuclear moratorium in 2012) and India, along with smaller emerging markets like United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Poland, and Bangladesh, are driving most of the growth.

Fukushima may actually have had the biggest political impact in Western Europe. Germany still plans to have all of its nuclear plants offline by 2022. Switzerland plans to wean itself off nuclear by 2034. France has some vaguer plans to cut down on the country’s heavy reliance on nuclear. But these cutbacks will likely be offset by the expansions in the developing world.

Three years later, it looks like the worst meltdown since Chernobyl was more of a blip than a turning point for nuclear energy.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog.