As tens of thousands of Japanese citizens marched yesterday in downtown Tokyo to protest the government's pro-nuclear policy, one thing has become very clear since the Fukushima disaster: the nuclear industry's days are numbered.
Last week's explosion at a French nuclear plant (fortunately no leaks occurred though one person was killed) underscored the decision by both Germany and Switzerland to ban nuclear energy, and many more countries may be expected to follow suit.
So it's not too surprising that leading European nuclear manufacturer Siemens announced today that it will be closing down its nuclear division. As CEO Peter Loscher said, "The (nuclear) chapter for us is closed."
Siemens constructed all of Germany's 17 nuclear power plants, but the company has also been a leader in renewable energy technologies, in particular wind power which has shown rapid and sustained growth in the past 10 years.
Though Merkel has been criticized for the decision, it is likely that the nuclear ban will be a catalyst to spur the achievement one of the world's most ambitious renewable energy goals — Germany seeks to provide 35 percent of its power by 2020 (Germany is currently at 18 percent). Though achieving this goal will require both political and financial capital, Loscher believes it is achievable.
With Siemens' decision, it feels that the world is indeed turning a new page in the history book of power generation. The great low-carbon experiment of the 20th century, nuclear power, is over. And a new 21st century experiment is beginning, one that will rely on freely available wind and sunlight.
Is nuclear dead? I don't think so. Siemens will continue making parts that can be used in both conventional and nuclear power plants, and as I've discussed before, exciting research developments are happening in the field of new nuclear power. But even the experts believe these innovations (like fusion and waste downcycling) are decades off, and may not come to maturity until the 22nd century. In the meantime, companies like Siemens are probably very happy that they diversified early and are now in the leadership position to help promote (and profit from) the implementation a renewable energy revolution.