This coming weekend (January 14–15), Peace Boat and five other international non-governmental organizations will host the Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World in Yokohoma, Japan. The event was organized in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the resulting disasters at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

An image of the Biblis nuclear power, one of the nuclear power plants permanently shutdown in Germany shortly after the events at Fukushima (Source: The Open University).

The overarching goal of the conference is to facilitate discussion of a nuclear power free world. Regional and international experts, activists, and people affected by radiation exposure from nuclear power plants will come together to generate a roadmap promoting the decommissioning of these facilities worldwide. Participants will discuss policies that support renewable energy over nuclear energy and create action plans for implementing these policies in Japan and other countries that depend heavily on nuclear.

The Worldwatch Institute recently published an article, “Global Nuclear Generation Capacity Falls, discussing the current status of the nuclear industry. Last year saw a decline in global nuclear generating capacity, stemming largely from the events at Fukushima and several countries’ reactions. Germany, for example, decommissioned more than 8 gigawatts of nuclear capacity immediately following Fukushima. China, a country that still plans ambitious nuclear capacity growth in the future, suspended its nuclear power plant permitting process pending further review. Japan, which has relied heavily on nuclear energy for decades, took many of its reactors offline, leaving only 10 of its 54 nuclear reactors connected to the grid following the earthquake.

While the immediate response to Fukushima contributed to a recent decline in nuclear generating capacity worldwide, the long-term role of nuclear energy remains unclear. Meetings like the Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World, regardless of one’s personal views on nuclear energy, are therefore important for addressing the real possibility that nuclear energy will play a diminishing role in the world’s energy mix in the future. Stakeholders and policymakers need to have real discussions on how to successfully transition away from this important source of energy, which accounts for 13 percent of global electricity production, to prepare for the possibility that future nuclear power expansion will be politically untenable.

Despite its risks, there are benefits to nuclear energy that make it difficult to replace. Climate change remains one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century, and nuclear’s relatively low carbon footprint, especially when compared to traditional fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, make it an attractive source of energy. Also, in the case of already-built and operating nuclear reactors, nuclear energy provides a reliable source of baseload power that operates at low variable costs.

Nevertheless, nuclear energy remains a controversial source of electricity. Past incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima highlight that nuclear accidents are a real possibility, and that they can have fatal consequences on a scale much greater than those of other power-generating technologies. So while the coal industry has been plagued with countless more fatal accidents than the nuclear industry over the past several decades, it is the scale, not the quantity, of potential accidents that makes nuclear such a risky and controversial source of electricity. Rising costs, increasing plant construction periods, the risk of nuclear proliferation, and the question of long-term nuclear waste storage are also major concerns that need to be considered when discussing the fate of nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy provides a significant share of electricity generation in several countries—more than 75 percent in France—and for these countries the question becomes how to realistically and responsibly replace nuclear energy in the future. The Global Conference for a Nuclear Power Free World provides an exciting forum through which stakeholders can tackle this very question.

While many people in the world call for an end to nuclear energy, a less-explored but related issue is what energy source will replace it? If fossil fuels, especially coal, were used as a substitute, global greenhouse gas emissions would likely increase, providing a poor and reckless solution to the problem. In today’s world, nuclear energy’s role as an important source of baseload power provides a challenge for countries that intend to phase out their nuclear power capacity. Innovative and creative solutions that allow renewable energy to replace nuclear energy need to be created, and the upcoming conference provides a good venue to advance this dialogue.

Matt Lucky is a Sustainable Energy Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute.

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China, Climate Change, European Union, Germany, japan, nuclear power, renewable energy