Nuclear Power Loses its Shine in a Sustainable Energy Future

In the aftermath of the Fukushima crisis, a majority of sustainability experts around the world now say that nuclear power isn't essential to a low-carbon energy future, research released today shows.

Early indications are that the market may well share such sentiments:

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has announced that Japan is rethinking its stance on nuclear power and that renewable energy will become a cornerstone for his country's energy policy.

Japan's international credit rating was downgraded by Fitch last week in view of the risk the disaster poses to the country's economic growth and the anticipated costs of cleanup.

Also last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel, once a nuclear advocate, said all 17 of Germany's nuclear plants will close by 2022.

The sustainability experts who made their views known on nuclear power were surveyed by research firm GlobeScan Incorporated and SustainAbility Ltd., a think tank and strategy consultancy. The two firms periodically query a pool of sustainability professionals in business, government, nongovernmental organizations, academia, research and consulting and other service fields on issues affecting their work. The findings released today represent the opinions of 551 people from 67 countries; 58 percent of the respondents have worked in sustainability for more than 10 years, 32 percent have five to 10 years of experience, and the remainder have spent three to just under five years in the business.

Click on image to view full-size chart.Fifty-four percent of those surveyed on "The Future of Energy" contend that "society can achieve a sustainable, low-carbon energy future without nuclear power." In contrast, 33 percent said nuclear power is "an essential component" to a low-carbon energy future, as the chart to the right shows:

"It was a bit of a surprise to me that only a third of experts think nuclear power is an essential component ... I didn't expect such low numbers," said Jeff Erikson, a senior vice president for SustainAbility in Washington, D.C. "If the survey were taken a year ago, before Fukushima, the numbers would have been a lot higher."

The survey, part of ongoing research by SustainAbility and GlobeScan, was conducted online May 6 through 20, roughly two months after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that knocked out the cooling systems at the Fukushima plant -- and almost two weeks before the Fitch's rating and Merkel's decision made headlines.

Perhaps not surprisingly, sustainability experts from the corporate sector were nearly five times as likely as those from NGOs to say that a sustainable energy future must include nuclear power (see chart, below).Click on image to view full-size chart.

Yet, the survey also found that among corporate respondents:

  • Less than half, 47 percent, believe nuclear power is essential for sustainable energy scenario.
  • 38 percent believe the opposite.
  • 15 percent don't subscribe to either view.

At the other end of the spectrum:

  • 10 percent of NGO respondents feel nuclear power is essential.
  • 75 percent disagree.
  • 15 percent say neither sentiment reflects their views.

Next Page: Should government subsidize renewables, nukes, oil and coal?