Angela Merkel’s collation government has pledged to decommission all of Germany’s seventeen nuclear reactors by 2022. This historic announcement comes in the wake of a global reaction to the events in Fukushima, Japan. The crippled reactors have caused many governments to rethink their nuclear strategy.

Before the Fukushima disaster, resurgence in the popularity of nuclear energy had been characterized as “the nuclear renaissance”. The industry had finally recovered from the Chernobyl disaster, over quarter-century before. Around the world, nuclear energy appeared to be a viable solution in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Globally, 2010 saw fourteen new reactors under construction, compared with three in 2005. That number will assuredly fall this year as governments rein-in their enthusiasm for nuclear energy.

In Ontario, support for nuclear energy appears comparatively stable, if not untouched. The current Liberal government remains committed to the province’s nuclear portfolio which provides nearly 50% of the province’s energy. More interestingly, the opposition Progressive Conservatives appear equally supportive of existing nuclear infrastructure. Recently, Progressive Conservative Leader, Tim Hudak, has defended nuclear as “the workhorse of [Ontario’s] system”, characterizing it as “affordable” and “reliable”. Indeed, both parties endorse plans to build new reactors and refurbish ageing ones. Therefore, despite potential as a wedge issue in the upcoming provincial election, it would appear that nuclear energy’s future will continue unscathed in Ontario.   

            Globally, nuclear energy’s future remains uncertain as two questions loom.

First, will others follow Merkel’s lead? The 2022 plan is merely a retraction of an earlier plan to extend the life of Germany’s aging plants. An industry analyst at TD Securities asserts, “Germany has long been regarded as ‘weak’ on nuclear power and was not expected to be a significant factor in reactor growth over the medium to longer term”. Former International Atomic Energy Agency head, Hans Blix has characterized the Fukushima tragedy as, “[a] bump in the road, but not the end of the road”. Nevertheless, Germany’s announcement has sent shockwaves through the nuclear industry as insiders await any indication that others may follow.

Second, how will this impact GHG reduction targets? Most experts agree that nuclear energy is a central element in the struggle to cut green-house gas emissions in half by 2050. The International Energy Agency has concluded that “nuclear’s share of the global power supply would have to grow to 24 per cent from 14 per cent currently to achieve that goal”. Some environmentalists tolerate nuclear’s role in GHG mitigation. However, most continue to oppose it due to safety and waste management concerns.

In Germany, the 2022 plan calls for increased reliance on renewable energy and stringent conservation measures. However, not everyone is convinced of the plans merits. Sweden’s Environmental Minister has written off the plan as “unrealistic”, asserting that it will result in greater dependence on imported coal and nuclear-generated electricity from France.

In the end, the nuclear energy has reached a cross-road. On the one hand nuclear’s future and its role in GHG mitigation appears secure, in Ontario and most other nuclear jurisdictions. On the other hand, Germany’s bold plan has the world watching to see if there will be any followers of Merkel’s lead. For the time being, commentators will wait to see if Fukushima is “a bump in the road” or “the end of the road” for nuclear energy’s global aspirations.