The end of nuclear

Japan's shutdown of all nuclear power generation is a symbol of the world moving away from nuclear and Australia must now wake up to the renewable revolution.

It happened at 5pm on Saturday the 5th of May: Tomari Reactor number 3, operated by Hokkaido electric, ceased production. This means that Japan is now nuclear free for the first time since 1966.

But life is going on. Japan now has 54 mothballed or destroyed nuclear reactors. Prior to the Fukushima disaster there were 47.5GWe of nuclear generation capacity, the equivalent of twice Australia's entire baseload capacity.

For a country of only five times our population, losing double our entire generation is a pretty serious problem. Pro nuclear evangelists such as Ziggy Switkoski (who we haven't heard much from lately) claim that countries like Japan have no option available besides nuclear.

But Japan is now operating completely nuclear free.

We heard claims that Japan would have widespread blackouts through last summer (they didn't) and that this will occur this summer (they will not).

Japan still continues to electrically heat its toilet seats, light the highest number of neon signs per capita in the world, and run their ubiquitous vending machines – despite repeated warnings of a possible power crunch by vested interests and government.

In fact we've heard these kind of nuclear dependency claims before and they've been wrong time and time again. The pro-nuclear evangelists claimed that Germany would be importing electricity from its neighbours last year, after switching off half of its nuclear reactor fleet.

Instead of importing electricity, Germany exported 6TWh of electricity and what's more, it reduced its carbon emissions by two per cent.

It is possible now that Japanese nuclear plants may never be restarted, or if some do, the many remaining will be mothballed. But unfortunately it's not so easy to completely mothball a nuclear plant.

When they get too old to operate safely or get shut early due to disaster they still need to be propped up on life support, to manage the site cleanup, to manage their waste and to cool that waste.

In fact right now, Japan's 54 idled reactors are using the electricity equivalent to the output of three entire reactors, just to provide cooling and other critical services. These will need to go on being delivered to the sites for years even if the reactors are to be completely decommissioned.

That means that nuclear reactors are competing with hospitals, schools and factories for scarce electricity supplies. Due to inherent safety risks, the reactors get power ahead of everyone else in the country.

It doesn't matter if you're in an emergency ward needing urgent medical attention to save your life, the reactors' safety comes first.

The ongoing fallout of the Fukushima disaster means one of the world's leading industrial powerhouses has taken a big hit. The sun has set on plans for new reactors to increase nuclear capacity in Japan to 50 per cent.

If electricity supply remains stable through the coming summer without any nuclear restarts then it will be game over for the nuclear utility industry in Japan. This is quite possible given that local governments and popular opinion are against restarts.

The Japanese industrial economy is largely based on Germany where eight reactors are already disabled. The Japanese believe that anything Germany can do they can also do, which gives them the resolve to consider a nuclear free future.

Now with the Socialist Party winning France's elections, promising to shut half the nation's fleet of reactors by 2025, it is clear that all reactor programs in the west will be wound down over time.

That leaves China, a country spooked by what happened in Japan, but a country which is also the great hope of nuclear evangelists the world over.

The problem for China is that straight after Fukushima it couldn't trust its flagship Generation II design, so it's been shelved. No new nuclear reactors will be built to the prevailing specification, as major safety concerns remain over the old technology. This includes what makes up its entire existing fleet of reactors.

So the only option for China is to attempt to follow the very troubled nuclear programs in the west. Third Generation designs from French Areva and Westinghouse in the US remain unproven, with monumental cost overruns and project delays and none completed to date. Current projects proposed and in initial stages of construction in China have 70-80 per cent imported content, increasing costs massively.  This has forced China to revise down their 2020 target for nuclear by more than 50 per cent

All the while solar electricity keeps coming down in price with every additional solar panel installed, to the point where even people in remote parts of India and Bangladesh can now afford electricity for lighting, telecommunications and motors.

We are on the cusp of a solar revolution. One third of our global electricity consumption occurs during hours where solar power production is occurring. Meaning we can deliver solar for 33 per cent of the world's electricity without even considering storage. Rooftop solar power doesn't have to compete in the wholesale market, so it will be competitive in most the world's retail markets by 2015, while grid competitiveness will be achieved in the period 2018-2020.

Wind power is coming down in price too, due to innovation, efficiency, and the scale up of projects and technology. As is the maturing Chinese wind industry. China is already aiming for 18 per cent wind power in its total energy supply mix by 2025 and 50GW of solar by 2020.

Once we've got the bulk of the world's power from renewable sources then we can fill any gaps with pumped hydro storage and (most importantly to Australia) solar thermal with molten salt storage.

These provide reliable baseload, intermediate and peaking dispatchable power capacity to power our refrigerators, traffic lights, hair dryers, air conditioners and LCD televisions.

Riding the coal/LNG/uranium train will turn out to be far more disruptive and disastrous than our previous folly of riding on the sheep’s back well after it became too old to carry us any further.

Australia must wake up to the renewable energy revolution, and lose our misguided focus on expanding export coal and gas extraction.

Joining the rest of the world in a 21st century renewable-powered clean tech economy is our only sensible option.

Matthew Wright is executive director of Beyond Zero Emissions.