Governments in Europe and Asia are tearing up or reviewing plans to build new nuclear plants, and reactor manufacturers and uranium producers have seen their share prices dive.
This is a major setback for the nuclear industry, which had enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years. As public fears over nuclear energy faded along with memories of Ukraine's 1986 Chernobyl disaster, governments across the world proposed a flurry of nuclear initiatives.
In Europe, countries including the U.K. and Poland backed nuclear as a way to cut carbon dioxide emissions and end their dependence on Russian natural gas and oil. Meanwhile Asian giants such as China -- home to 40 percent of all nuclear plants currently under production -- and India decided atomic energy could help power their rapidly expanding economies.
But as Japan struggles to prevent a meltdown, the debate about the dangers of nuclear power has flared up once again. In Germany, more than 60,000 people attended a Saturday protest outside a nuclear plant in Neckarwestheim, near Stuttgart.
The demonstrators called on Chancellor Angela Merkel to reverse a recent decision that extended the life of the country's 17 nuclear power plants by an extra 12 years. Even before the disaster in Japan, that was a hugely unpopular decision in a country where some 70 percent of voters oppose nuclear power.
On Sunday, Merkel announced that she had ordered a safety review of all plants but that the lifeline extension would go ahead. However, crucial elections are coming up in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, which is controlled by Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party but is at risk of being lost to an alliance of anti-nuclear opposition parties. Today the chancellor said she would review the extension.
That could result in the plant at Neckarwestheim, and another in the western state of Hesse, being shut down at least temporarily.
Neighboring Switzerland has also backpedaled on plans to replace five aging reactors, which provide 40 percent of the nation's power. Energy Minister Doris Leuthard announced today that she was suspending the approvals process for the new stations, so that safety standards could be revisited once a thorough review of the Fukushima disaster had been carried out. "Safety and well-being of the population have the highest priority," she said.
Any review of the Fukushima disaster is likely to result in more regulation, as well as demands for more stringent safety measures. That could cause some countries planning new plants to back away from nuclear power.
"Utilities are always driven by the bottom line," Antony Froggatt, a senior research fellow and energy industry expert at London-based think-tank Chatham House, told AOL News. "If more safety measures are required, and regulation increases, then we might reach a tipping point where other alternative energy options become cheaper and nuclear no longer seems like such a good option."
For the moment, Poland (which intends to build two plants in the coming decade) and Britain (which has approved eight new nuclear power stations) are pushing ahead with their atomic agendas, although they have pledged to re-examine safety measures. "Our plants will be built to provide maximum security," Prime Minister Donald Tusk said this weekend. "But let's be honest, Poland is not a seismically active country."
The same can't be said of Taiwan, which, like Japan, sits on the "ring of fire" -- an earthquake-prone belt that stretches around the Pacific basin. The country's state-run energy utility Taipower has said that it is now studying how to reduce reliance on the country's three reactors and increase output from alternative sources.
But Japan's disaster is unlikely to have much impact on Asia's new superpowers, China and India. Both countries regard nuclear energy as a vital tool to power future growth. China has more than 25 nuclear power plants under construction and 50 in planning stages. And India aims to supply 25 percent of its energy from nuclear plants by 2050, up from 2.5 percent today.
While authorities in the two Asian giants remain committed to atomic energy, the Fukushima accident could cause many ordinary Indians and Chinese to regard nuclear power with increased suspicion. Footage of Japanese children and seniors being scanned for radiation has been broadcast in both countries, and such powerful images will be remembered for years to come.
"You only have to look back at the Three Mile Island accident [in Pennsylvania in 1979] and the Chernobyl disaster to know that a major accident will also trigger a rise in public opposition and the cancellation of projects," Froggatt said.