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Fukushima Meltdown Hastens Decline of Nuclear Power

By J. Matthew Roney

On May 5, 2012, Japan shut down its Tomari 3 nuclear reactor on the northern island of Hokkaido for inspection, marking the first time in over 40 years that the country had not a single nuclear power plant generating electricity. The March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown shattered public confidence in atomic energy, thus far making it politically impossible to restart any of the reactors taken offline. And the disaster’s legacy has spread far beyond Japan. Some European countries have decided to phase out their nuclear programs entirely. In other countries, nuclear plans are proceeding with caution. But with the world’s fleet of reactors aging, and with new plants suffering construction delays and cost increases, it is possible that world nuclear electricity generation has peaked and begun a long-term decline.

Prior to the Fukushima crisis, Japan had 54 reactors providing close to 30 percent of its electricity, with plans to increase this share to more than 50 percent by 2030. But nuclear power dropped to just 18 percent of Japan’s electricity over the course of 2011. When the quake and tsunami hit, 16 reactors had already been temporarily shut down for inspections or maintenance; another 13 underwent emergency shutoffs, including the four Fukushima Daiichi reactors now permanently shut down. Others were subsequently closed due to earthquake vulnerability or for regular inspection. Now that Tomari 3 is offline, all 44,200 megawatts of Japan’s nuclear capacity that are listed as “operational” by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are in fact idle with no set date for restart.

Next to Japan, the most dramatic shift in nuclear energy policy following Fukushima occurred in Germany. Within days of the disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany’s seven oldest reactors, all built before 1980, would shut down immediately. And in May 2011, the government declared that Germany would phase out nuclear entirely by 2022. Nuclear power generated 18 percent of the country’s electricity in 2011, down from 24 percent in recent years and well below the peak in 1997 of 31 percent.

Just before Germany’s phaseout decision, Switzerland abandoned plans for three new reactors that were going through the approval process. The government also announced that all five of the country’s reactors—which for years had provided some 40 percent of its electricity—will close permanently as their operating licenses expire over the next 22 years. Italy, which had discontinued its nuclear program after the infamous 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, had in 2010 decided to restart it. But in a June 2011 referendum, more than 90 percent of Italian voters chose to ban nuclear power. Later in 2011, Belgium announced plans to phase out the seven reactors that provide more than half of the country’s electricity. Even in France, with a world-leading 77 percent of its electricity coming from nuclear power, newly elected President François Hollande has said he intends to reduce this share to roughly 50 percent by 2025.

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Bumper 2011 Grain Harvest Fails to Rebuild Global Stocks

This post is by Janet Larsen, Director of Research at the Earth Policy Institute. The world’s farmers produced more grain in 2011 than ever before. Estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show the global grain harvest coming in at 2,295 million tons, up 53 million tons from the previous record in 2009. Consumption grew by 90 million tons over the same period to 2,280 million tons. Yet with global grain production actually falling short of consumption in 7 of the past 12 years, stocks remain worryingly low, leaving the world vulnerable to food price shocks. Nearly half the calories …

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Rising Meat Consumption Takes Big Bite out of Grain Harvest

World consumption of animal protein is everywhere on the rise. Meat consumption increased from 44 million tons in 1950 to 284 million tons in 2009, more than doubling annual consumption per person to over 90 pounds. The rise in consumption of milk and eggs is equally dramatic. Wherever incomes rise, so does meat consumption. As the oceanic fish catch and rangeland beef production have both leveled off, the world has shifted to grain-based production of animal protein to expand output. With some 35 percent of the world grain harvest (760 million tons) used to produce animal protein, meat consumption has …

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Troubling Health Trends Holding Back Progress on Life Expectancy

By Brigid Fitzgerald Reading People born today will live for 68 years on average, 20 years longer than those born in 1950. By the mid-twentieth century, industrial countries had already made major strides in extending lifespans with improvements in sanitation, nutrition, and public health. After World War II, rapid gains in life expectancy in developing countries began to narrow the gap between these nations and industrial countries. Although average life expectancy worldwide continues to increase, gains have come more slowly in the last few decades. Worryingly, life expectancy has actually declined in some developing countries, while a few industrial countries …

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Demographics loom large in state failure

After a half-century of forming new states from former colonies and from the breakup of the Soviet Union, the international community is today faced with the opposite situation: the disintegration of states. Failing states are now a prominent feature of the international political landscape. The most systematic ongoing effort to analyze countries’ vulnerability to failure is one undertaken by the Fund for Peace and published in each July/August issue of Foreign Policy. The research team analyzes 177 countries and ranks them according to “their vulnerability to violent internal conflict and societal deterioration,” based on 12 social, economic, and political indicators. …

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Don’t let Solyndra fool you: Solar PV is on fire

This post was written by J. Matthew Roney, research associate for the Earth Policy Institute. Additional resources at http://www.earth-policy.org. Solar photovoltaic (PV) companies manufactured a record 24,000 megawatts (MW) of PV cells worldwide in 2010, more than doubling their 2009 output. Annual PV production has grown nearly 100-fold since 2000, when just 277 MW of cells were made. Newly installed PV also set a record in 2010, as 16,600 MW were installed in more than 100 countries. This brought the total worldwide capacity of solar PV to nearly 40,000 MW -- enough to power 14 million European homes. Made of …

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Population facts and figures at your fingertips

This post is by Brigid Fitzgerald Reading, staff researcher at the Earth Policy Institute. The number of people in the world is expected to reach 7 billion by the end of October 2011. Our rate of increase continues to slow from the high point of over 2 percent in 1968. Still, this year’s 1.1 percent increase means some 78 million people will be added to the global population in 2011. The human population did not reach 1 billion until the early nineteenth century, and it took more than 100 years to reach 2 billion. After that, the intervals between billions …

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Two Stories of Disease: Smallpox and Polio

Smallpox plagued humanity for thousands of years. In the 18th century, smallpox killed one out of every ten children in France and Sweden. Over the 20th century, the virus caused between 300 and 500 million deaths worldwide. No effective treatment was ever developed. The eradication of this devastating disease is one of public health’s greatest achievements. It involved mass vaccinations and surveillance to track and contain outbreaks. In 1977, ten years after the World Health Organization (WHO) began an intensive eradication program, the last naturally occurring case of smallpox was identified in Somalia. And on May 8, 1980, the World …

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Grain Production Falling as Soil Erosion Continues

The thin layer of topsoil that covers much of the earth’s land surface is the foundation of civilization. As long as soil erosion on cropland does not exceed new soil formation, all is well. But once it does, it leads to falling soil fertility and eventually to land abandonment. As countries lose their topsoil through overgrazing, overplowing, or deforestation, they eventually lose the capacity to feed themselves. Among those facing this problem are Lesotho, Haiti, Mongolia, and North Korea. Lesotho, one of Africa’s smallest countries with only 2 million people, is paying a heavy price for its soil losses. A …

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Shining a light on energy efficiency

Our inefficient, carbon-based energy economy threatens to irreversibly disrupt the Earth’s climate. Averting dangerous climate change and the resultant crop-shrinking heat waves, more-destructive storms, accelerated sea level rise, and waves of climate refugees means cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020. The first key component of the Earth Policy Institute’s climate stabilization plan is to systematically raise the efficiency of the world energy economy. One of the quickest ways to increase efficiency, cut carbon emissions, and save money is simply to change light bulbs. Some 19 percent of world electricity demand goes to lighting. The carbon emissions generated by this …

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