Germany’s decision to phase-out nuclear power leaves the country isolated worldwide. China has taken over as the global trendsetter regarding atomic energy, says DW’s columnist Frank Sieren.
Japan's nuclear industry came to an abrupt halt on March 11th, 2011, when first an earthquake and then a tsunami hit the country's east coast, killing thousands of people. In Fukushima power stations, the reactor cores melted. It was the most severe nuclear disaster since the super meltdown of Chernobyl in 1986. After the shock, the Japanese government declared nuclear energy unsafe and switched off all of the country's reactors.
Now, three and a half years on, one thing is clear: nuclear energy is for now indestructible – even in Japan. The Japanese people may not fully trust it any longer, but they also no longer want to accept the high energy prices which have existed since the atomic phase-out.
Renaissance of nuclear energy in Japan
High cost is one of the arguments used by the Japanese government to justify the decision to switch the country's nuclear reactors back on again. Sendai power station on the southern island will be the first in a few weeks' time. Others will follow. Brazil, India, China and Russia are also expanding their countries' nuclear energy infrastructure.
An increasing number of countries has even decided to start adopting nuclear energy; among them Turkey, Bangladesh, Egypt, Jordan, Nigeria and Vietnam. Even the United Arab Emirates started building a nuclear power station, Belarus and Finland, too. Argentina is on the list - and Saudi Arabia, of all places. Even Germany's direct neighbors have their own idea of energy supply: France, Britain, and Poland continue relying on nuclear power. 72 nuclear power stations are currently being built, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA.
Germany's futile role model attempt
Germany is pretty isolated with its intention to phase out nuclear power. The decision for a complete exit was made hastily in the Fukushima aftermath, with Germans reacting almost as shocked as the Japanese.
Of course, the Germans knew that nobody in Europe would follow suit any time soon.
But the new-born anti-nuclear power campaigners in Berlin had one good argument: somebody had to take the lead and act as a trailblazer. After all, the world tends to be receptive to German ideas, German technology and German soccer. Right?
But so far, Germany has failed to convince others of the advantages of a nuclear exit. On the contrary: the current trendsetter is China. Beijing aims to increase the number of nuclear power stations in the country from a current 15 to 71 by 2020. The amount of nuclear electricity is to rise from a current 13 gigawatts to 160 gigawatts by 2040. Compare this to the US, which currently produces 101 gigawatts of energy with nuclear power.
Within one generation, China is poised to become the world's top nuclear nation. And there's an easy explanation. There is hardly any region along China's entire east coast and also in the heavily industrialized south where air pollution doesn't reach alarming levels at least a few days per month. Beijing also invests in renewable sources of energy – China has long become the top global player in wind energy as well as solar power stations.
Caught between a rock and a hard place
But China's 1.3 billion people are hungry for energy: the economy continues to grow, and new cities and new industries mean demand for electricity keeps rising. So far, electricity is mainly generated by coal power, a heavy pollutant. Today, China alone consumes almost as much coal every year as the rest of the world taken together.
This has led to a devastating situation. The Chinese government is caught between a rock and a hard place. It has to make the choice between the pervasive risks of coal and the potential risks of nuclear energy. The latter is a risk that Beijing seems to prefer to take for now. In China, there's a widespread belief that nuclear energy is the only way for now to avoid suffocating from smog.
Siemens and other German suppliers meanwhile have no chance of benefiting – they are bound to Germany's nuclear phase-out – even if atomic reactors built by German engineers were always considered the safest in the world.
DW's columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for more than 20 years.