Governments around the world have put plans for nuclear power plants on hold following the devastating Japanese earthquake
Switzerland, Germany and Taiwan have said they are re-evaluating plans for new and existing nuclear power stations after the Fukushima nuclear complex north of Tokyo was badly hit by the 8.9 magnitude earthquake last week.
UK energy secretary Chris Huhne has responded to calls from environmental campaigners to rethink the country’s nuclear plans by saying that while there is no reason to expect similar seismic activity in the UK, the government is taking the situation extremely seriously.
“I have called on the chief nuclear inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, for a thorough report on the implications of the situation in Japan and the lessons to be learned.
"It is essential that we understand the full facts and their implications, both for existing nuclear reactors and any new programme, as safety is always our number one concern,” Mr Huhne said.
A mechanical failure in the Fukushima plant’s cooling system and two hydrogen explosions caused by the quake has prompted the evacuation of tens of thousands of people in the vicinity. Eleven of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors have also been shut, reducing the amount of nuclear power generation capacity in operation to 25,622 megawatts – 52.3 per cent of Japan’s total.
The crisis is likely to increase opposition to major nuclear expansion in Europe and the US, while at the same time giving renewables and greener fuels a boost.
Swiss energy minister Doris Leuthard has suspended the approvals process for three nuclear power stations so safety standards can be revisited, while German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle has suggested that the government’s decision to extend the life of the country's nuclear power stations could be suspended.
Taiwan’s state-run Taipower has confirmed it is studying plans to cut nuclear power output, while chairman of the US Senate’s homeland security panel senator Joe Lieberman has argued that the country should “put the brakes on” plans for new nuclear plants.
However, the huge demand for electricity in Asia is unlikely to derail the continent’s nuclear power programmes, although China, India and South Korea have indicated there will be a reassessment of safety procedures and a renewed focus on diversifying energy sources.
Last year the UK government approved plans for eight new nuclear power plants, with Mr Huhne saying he was "fed up" with the stand-off between nuclear power and renewables to cut emissions and provide secure energy supplies.
Environmental campaigners have, though, urged him to focus on developing renewable power in the wake of the disaster.
Friends of the Earth executive director Andy Atkins said: “We can't keep heading down the nuclear route until the lessons from this crisis have been learned.
"The reality is that the UK doesn't need nuclear power - developing the UK's huge green energy potential and slashing energy waste can provide the cleaner, safer future we need.”