Post- Fukushima: The switch to renewable energy and its implications

Some six months after the Fukushima nuclear disaster shook the public's confidence in atomic power, many changes have taken place in Japan.

Among which - a new leadership, as well as a new feed-in tariff energy law.

But just how viable will the switch to renewable energy be?

Melissa Tan chats with Professor Ivan Mareels, dean of engineering at the University of Melbourne Australia

The March 11 Earthquake and Tsunami disaster in Japan marks a watershed that could clear the way for a globally sustainable structure in energy policies.

The accidents in Fukushima have shown that the dangers of nuclear energy cannot be controlled by human beings despite all technological progress and safety precautions taken.

In May this year, Japan's former Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he wanted to boost renewable energy, including big hydro plants, to at least 20 percent of Japan's power supply by the 2020s.

A new feed-in energy tariff law was then passed in August to promote renewable energy.

But weaning the country from nuclear power - just how viable is this?

Professor Ivan Mareels, dean of engineering at the University of Melbourne says that the Fukushima accident has certainly dented public confidence in nuclear power.

But he does not rule out its usage.

"On the other side, we also have to be realistic, that despite this accident, despite chernobyl, when we look at the statistics of energy production, nuclear energy is still the safest energy production worldwide. So as people are understanding better the consequences of any options we use for energy, for nuclear energy alone, from an engineering point of view, we should not rule out that solution at this point in time, as realistic as a resource of energy for the people."

The move towards renewables is not without implications.

"This point in time, the biggest social implication would be you'll pay more for your energy needs, than what you did in the past. The advantage of nuclear, is that it is actually relatively cheap, compared to some of the other options available for the supply of energy, especially renewable energy. So higher cost of energy is probably the main social impact and a huge investment."

And that leaves a huge task for the new Japanese leadership.

"Well they will be have to be able to convince that the extra cost is justified and it's the right thing to do for the nation and that it will indeed the right thing to do in the long run and i can only applaud them to do that. That will be a massive undertaking for Japan to do that and it will be great to see a nation like Japan take that leadership."

Will other countries follow suit when it comes to making the switch?

"Well in some sense we all have to do that, because if energy were to be produced by coal and gas, and fossil fuels, people are actually poluting our environment to such an extent that we are borrowing from our kids and grandchildren too much in my opinion. We all would have to take and bite the bullet, and say look, renewable is the way to go and we have to improve the environment for our children that is at least as good as ourselves that we are enjoying right now."

But countries like russia, turkey and iran are still going ahead with their nuclear plans...

"So is France, so are many people in the region here. Actually Singapore is surrounded by countries that are interested in nuclear power. Whathappened in Japan was to a first generation nuclear power boiling water reactor. Today the plan for air pressure total reactors or evolutionary pressurized total reactors and even the latest boiling water reactors are far safer and have much more passive safety features that are not relying on energy supply to be able to safeguard the reactor and the reactor housing. So the old plants are alot better than what the old plants were. We are actually looking now at generation three. What happened in Fukushima was to a generation one nuclear reactor. So plants will change, the people will probably ask for even greater safety measures than what we had in the past.

But what about the space constraint? How much space does a country need in order to make the switch to renewables? Will Japan be able to do it?

"So they probably have to put up with a new form of energy, they will have to put alot of investment in their grid, they will have to put storagecapacity online, cos most of the renewables that we have available don't supply base load. Like wind energy and solar, are not actually able to do this at this point in time. So we need storage, probably hydro, probably batteries, a huge investment required."

Still, Prof Mareels feels that Japan's move toward renewables is likely to be temporary.

"Because Japan is very hungry for energy, it's a very efficient nation for power nevertheless. But as it requires more energy, it's hard to see how Japan could supply all of its energy from renewables, even in say 20 years time, investment has to be quite dramatic. As the energy needs become more stringent, I suspect Japan will have little options but to consider third generation or fourth generation nuclear in the mix, certainly in the medium term."

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