Despite the pressing need for decarbonisation, nuclear power remains unpopular in many democracies. But thanks to a wave of nuclear enthusiasm in the atomic era, it also remains prevalent. Strangely, arguments about cost rarely come into the nuclear debate. This debate centres on reliability, security of supply, nuclear waste disposal, and risk.

The Fukushima disaster motivated opposition to nuclear, both inside Japan and worldwide. Aiming to prevent another tsunami-induced incident, the Japanese Government ordered reinspection of the country’s nuclear plants. Many of these found design flaws that left the plants vulnerable to similar incidents, further fuelling distrust of nuclear.

In Germany, this strengthened the case of the already strong anti-nuclear movement. As a result, the country committed to closing its nuclear plants.

Germany is in two unique positions: where nuclear provides stability to the grids of many countries, Germany can buy its nuclear from neighbouring France, the most nuclear-intensive country on Earth. Connections to hydro-intensive nations, such as Norway, also provide stability to the renewables in Germany’s mix.

It is also the only country to commit to decommissioning nuclear plants before ending coal power generation. As a result, even the biggest advocates of renewable-only power systems remain divided on the role of nuclear.

Regardless of attitudes, the facts remain. Nuclear represents the most reliable carbon-free power generation system, with a running cost almost comparable with renewables. As oil and gas prices rise, particularly in Europe, governments are seeking cheaper sources of energy. For those that have already paid the large up-front cost of nuclear, maintaining their plants presents an attractive option.

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As a result, governments have postponed the decommissioning of several nuclear reactors to meet the challenge of the day.

The change in Japan’s attitude to nuclear

Since the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant, the Japanese public has turned against nuclear. Most reactors were shut down as soon as practicable, and most have yet to restart.

During the following nuclear hiatus, the country’s use of coal and natural gas quickly rose. Oil use also also increased by a smaller amount. However, Japan’s strengthening stance against climate change has made this unviable in the long term. The country now has a net-zero target for 2050, and aims to become a regional leader in decarbonisation assistance. Now, the country’s economic sanctions against Russia have made gas use unviable in the short term as well.

In March, regardless of sanctions, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida decided not to pull companies out of Russian gas projects, in particular the Sakhalin-2 LNG project. Reuters cited sources as saying the decision came down to ensuring Japan’s energy security, despite the political implications. However, in July, Russian ruler Vladimir Putin signed a decree effectively seizing control of Sakhalin-2. Mistui and Mitsubishi have lost billions on the value of their investments, while Japan lost security in its gas supply.

Around the same time, elections in Japan’s upper house of government gave power to the pro-nuclear incumbent party. This reflects an uncharacteristic change in attitudes to nuclear from the Japanese public. Recent opinion polls showed almost half of Japanese citizens supporting the restart of nuclear plants, with noticeably less people voicing opposition or uncertainty.

Power companies would have dreamed of support this high for most of the last decade, where researchers asking similar questions found only one in five supporting nuclear development. With prices for fossil fuels now sky-high as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the cost difference between fossil fuels and nuclear has grown even wider. Suddenly, an idling fleet of nuclear liabilities has found another chance to prove its value.

Japan to accelerate nuclear licensing to meet power crisis

Since 2011, most reactor restarts have faced public, political, and legal opposition. During the restart of the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant, Japan’s former Prime Minister Naoto Kan joined protestors at the gates of the plant. The plan to release radioactive water into the sea as part of cleaning up the Fukushima plant attracted similar criticism. Some restarts, such as at the Ohi plant, have faced legal challenges, causing postponement or later fresh shutdowns.

But as power prices rise, opposition falls. In a press conference on 15 July, Minister for Industry Koichi Hagiuda said: “We would like to ensure the operation of a maximum of nine reactors, up from the current five operating now, by revising the construction and inspection periods for some of the nuclear power plants.”

The Japanese Government has given no specific indication of which reactors will restart. Since the Fukushima disaster, 10 nuclear units have received approval to restart, while another 16 await approval. This approval process has been completely overhauled since the original commissioning of the reactors: a new regulator, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), has new guidelines combining previous standards with regulations based on those used in Finland, the US, and France.

On average, the approval process takes more than 200 days. While the thoroughness of this process aims to reassure the public, it also reflects some of the very real flaws found in existing nuclear construction. In 2015, the NRA found that the Tsuruga Nuclear Plant lies on top of an active geological fault. Takahama’s unit 3 reactor has remained closed due to a damaged steam generator, while the Mihama 3 remains offline until anti-terrorism measures are brought up to scratch.

Of the country’s 33 supposedly operable nuclear reactors, 25 have applied to restart operations. Of these, 10 have permission, and five have done so. This leaves 15 reactors hoping to restart on the wave of relative enthusiasm caused by the current power crisis.

Germany seeks any port in a storm of sanctions

Across the world, Germany’s government has similarly accepted a nuclear turnaround as a necessity.

Germany’s coalition government, formed last year, consists of three parties with varying views of nuclear. In the last parliament, all collectively agreed to the country’s planned shutdown of nuclear plants in December 2022. With this deadline so close, most nuclear plants have already shutdown. Currently, only three reactors remain.

Outside of the combatant countries, Germany has seen the worst disruption to its energy sector from the invasion of Ukraine. EU sanctions against Russia have pushed prices up further, and restrictions on supply imposed by Russia have inflated prices further still.

As the country’s gas demand grows, the commissioning of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was expected to increase supply. Now, the worsening relationship between Germany and Russia means the pipeline may never be fully commissioned, affecting the country’s short and long-term energy economy.

As a result, the German coalition government has taken a reasonable pragmatic approach. The most vocally anti-nuclear party in the coalition, the Green Party, grew out of Germany’s anti-nuclear movement in the 70s. Now, some of its members are considering extending the lifespan of nuclear plants.

The coalition’s other parties are having similar, less ideological, internal disagreements over the policy. This would have seemed almost unimaginable before the invasion, but is a symptom of how the German public has changed its mind in a similar manner to Japan.

A poll in June showed 61% of Germans in support of extending the lifespan of nuclear plants beyond the end of the year. By comparison, 32% rejected the idea. It is also worth considering that 56% of the German public believed in greater use of coal to cover the country’s shortfalls. While nuclear may benefit from the trade dispute with Russia, Germany seemingly seeks any port in a storm.

Germany accepts nuclear “must not be taboo” – mostly

Some of the political manoeuvring comes of political circumstance: one of the remaining reactors provides 12% of power to the state of Munich, where the Greens form the largest party in state government.

This gave deputy mayor Katrin Habenschaden an easy choice: “If investigations show that Munich is threatened by a power supply bottleneck,” she said, “a lengthening of operations for [nuclear plant] Isar II must not be taboo. The security of supply for the people of Munich is my top priority.”

From here, the nuclear-as-a-necessity argument has grown upward within the party, but will likely remain short-lived. The majority of Green supporters – 57% – remain opposed to nuclear. German politics relies on compromise and agreement, leading parties to collaborate toward a common standpoint.

However, given their fundamental approach to nuclear, the Greens may see full-on nuclear lifespan extensions as an unnegotiable policy. As such, the recent wave of enthusiasm – or, at least, lack of nuclear pessimism – looks less like new hope for German nuclear, and more like a temporary stay of execution. Internal emails obtained by Die Welt suggest a strong line against further renewal of nuclear plants, which would need new nuclear fuel rods to extend their operating lifespan.

These read: “As soon as the results [of investigations in Munich] are available, possible further measures will be discussed — as before — on the basis of the facts. We reject an extension of the operating term, i.e. the procurement of new fuel rods.”