The meltdown at Japan's Fukushima power station unleashed a wave that threatens to swamp the nuclear industry's much-hyped global renaissance, although many governments insist nuclear remains a favoured option as they face hard choices over future energy supply.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel jolted the nuclear industry on the weekend with her announcement that Europe's industrial powerhouse will close all 17 of its nuclear reactors by 2022, pulling the plug on a technology that until recently supplied Germany with 23 per cent of its power.
The announcement is bound to send further shock waves through an industry grappling with the consequences of the Fukushima disaster. It will certainly cause casualties - both directly as some governments back away from their nuclear ambitions, and indirectly, by forcing the industry to improve its safety technology, further raising the already daunting price of new reactors.
Should governments move away from nuclear energy on a large scale, it's not clear how they will make up for the loss in capacity without relying more heavily on fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, which experts warn are key contributors to an impending climate catastrophe.
Environmentalists are urging consumers to be more efficient in the way they use energy, while calling for heavy investment in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. But as potentially devastating as they are, governments, industry and utility planners for the most part remain more comfortable with the risks posed by nuclear power than the uncertainties of relying on an entirely re-engineered system.
In short, the nuclear era is far from over. But the fact remains that the crisis at the Japanese plants has reawakened fears that had dissipated in the years since the Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union.
Indeed, the nuclear industry has lately insisted that there is a renaissance in interest in its product. The key to that resurgence lies not in Germany but elsewhere, in nuclear-dependent France and Sweden, and in the United States, China, India and South Korea - all of which are pursuing ambitious nuclear construction programs. Southeast Asia and the Middle East, where governments in emerging economies like Malaysia and Turkey have embraced nuclear energy, are also key to the industry's future.
In Canada, Ontario remains committed to a policy that has resulted in nuclear plants supplying 50 per cent of the province's energy, compared with 15 per cent in the country as a whole. Both the governing Liberals and opposition Progressive Conservatives endorse a plan to build two new reactors and refurbish aging ones. Quebec - which is blessed with abundant hydro power - is meanwhile backtracking on a plan to retool its Candu reactor at the Gentilly-2 plant.
Has Germany Set a Precedent Other Countries Will Follow?
Ms. Merkel's announcement was, in fact, a reversal of a decision made only a year ago to extend Germany's nuclear era. Under the influence of a popular Green Party, Germany had planned to shut down its reactors, but Ms. Merkel passed legislation just last year to allow utilities to extend the life of existing plants.
In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, her weekend decision essentially reverts to a previous plan to shutter the country's reactors by 2022. Industry experts do not expect other governments to follow suit, noting that the German government is known for its ambivalent attitude toward nuclear energy. Said Greg Barnes, an industry analyst with TD Securities Inc.: "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."
Hans Blix, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said he is sticking to his view that the Fukushima disaster will prove to be a "bump in the road, but not the end of the road" for nuclear power around the world.
But Germany's about-face nonetheless illustrates the new level of caution with which governments are approaching nuclear power. Reporting last weekend, a government-appointed German commission urged the total withdrawal from nuclear energy, saying Fukushima "demonstrates the limitations of human disaster-preparedness and emergency measures." It said risk levels are unacceptable given the existence of other, safer alternatives.
And while other governments may want to proceed with plans for new reactors, citizens may make their own risk assessment and throw up roadblocks when utilities look for regulatory approval.
At the very least, the Japanese disaster will force the industry to increase its level of safety, forcing costly design changes. "As the industry was attempting to put the renaissance into practice, you were seeing the cost estimates just going up and up and up," said Mark Winfield, a professor of energy and environment at York University.
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