It has been a year since the devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan killed 16 000 people and caused the catastrophic nuclear meltdown at Fukushima.

For an industry that – according to Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – had become “a bit complacent” before Fukushima, the disaster was its worst nightmare come true.

Elmo Collins of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) says that watching the events unfold on television “felt like it happened in our own back yard”.

The headline after-effects of Fukushima are well known: Japan’s nuclear power sector is crippled and the country is in the midst of an energy crisis, while Germany, Italy and Switzerland have essentially withdrawn from nuclear power.

There have been numerous public opinion polls about nuclear power since Fukushima, and guess what: they all conclude something different. Depending on which one you read, sentiment is either anti-, pro-, or apathetic to nuclear. Six months ago the Germans and, understandably, the Japanese were the most anti-atomic nations. Now, Germans are said to be uneasy about the costs to their energy bills that the nuclear pullout will cost them.

In fact sociologist and political scientist Piet Sellke of Stuttgart University believes that if Germany had held a referendum on nuclear, the country would still have its reactor programme in place.

Meanwhile, the French are also said to be strongly anti-nuclear, yet believe the risk management of EDF is so robust that they would rather live with the devil they know than opt for a radical change in energy policy.

So on a global scale, how much has changed in the 12 months since Fukushima?

From a statistical point of view, the answer is not much. On the day before the earthquake last year, there were 442 operational reactors in 30 countries, 65 in the process of being built and another 158 in the pipeline.

Source: World Association of Nuclear Operators

As of the beginning of this March 2012, there were 436 reactors operating in the same 30 countries, and 65 are still in construction.

Those European countries that were pro-nuclear, such as the Czech Republic, the UK and Poland, remain so, while China, India and the Gulf States of the Middle East are pushing ahead with ambitious atomic agendas.

What has changed is there is a far more measured approach to nuclear, with a greater-than-ever emphasis on safety.

Stress tests have been carried out on reactors across the world and with the results of these tests in Europe due in June, what happens next will be decisive. In Brussels this month, at a debate to mark the first anniversary of Fukushima, British Conservative MEP Sajjad Karim said the response to the tests should be “sensible, proportionate and based on facts”, warning that a hasty reaction could lead to “negative consequences for safety and energy security”.

The IAEA’s Amano says Fukushima was “an important wake-up call” that triggered a “nuclear safety renaissance”. He says the disaster exposed weaknesses in Japan’s nuclear industry, including inadequate preparation and responses to an emergency: weaknesses that could be traced back to a nuclear regulatory body that “was not fully independent from the promotional side”.

A regulatory review has been underway in Japan and countries across the world, with the effect that nuclear power generation is probably safer now than it has ever been.

Collins of the NRC says that the battle for nuclear safety “requires daily vigilance” and that a lengthy period of time without a nuclear incident should not be equated to a time of prolonged peace, but instead was “a time of increased risk”.

This mindset was what was missing pre-Fukushima, but it is now front and centre of the agendas of everyone in the industry.

The biggest challenge will centre on not the new reactors, which will incorporate post-Fukushima designs, but those aging plants of more than 20 years’ old which account for 80 per cent of the global nuclear fleet.

These need to incorporate the safety features of newer or future designs, especially if some of them are to have an extended lifespan.

Peter Bradford, who previously worked for the NRC and is a member of the China Sustainable Energy Policy Council, says it would be ideal if Fukushima could “steer us away from prophecies and towards a sensible assessment of market economics, climate science and nuclear risks. Then nuclear power would serve the public, not the other way around.”

He may well get his wish. The new regulatory and safety landscape of the industry will put it in a strong position to take its place in the energy policies of established and emerging nuclear nations. While the last 12 months have seen the nuclear industry assume a taking stock approach, the next year is likely to be more decisive. By March 2013 we will have a much clear idea of just what the true after-effects of Fukushima will be.

While Germany has taken its historic withdrawal decision, the rest of the nuclear world paused, took stock… and carried on. Yet an overhaul of regulatory and safety regimes means it is in better shape than ever.

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