Fukushima and the Global “Nuclear Renaissance”

In addition to the massive rescue and humanitarian operation in response to Japan’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, the country and the rest of the world continue an anxious vigil in hope that several of its nuclear reactors will not become a third major disaster. Thus far, plant redundancies and emergency operations have kept the integrity of the reactors intact, but the situation remains unclear and three reactors remain unstable. While we can remain hopeful that the emergency measures to stabilize these reactors (Fukushima Daiichi reactors 1, 2 and 3) will succeed, the events constitute a major nuclear accident in the history of nuclear power that will be measured against Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Because of this fact, the consequences of Japan’s earthquake will extend far beyond disaster relief and response. For, since its inception, civilian nuclear power has held an uneasy and unstable relationship with the people who use its electricity, and the serious and disconcerting problems in Japan’s nuclear reactors have struck the core sensitivity of nuclear power: safety.

In the United States, for example, concerns about nuclear’s environmental and health risks rose through the 1970s. Then, a partial core meltdown to a reactor at Three Mile Island in 1979 led to a toxic political discourse that essentially stopped expansion of nuclear power in this country for nearly 30 years. In the resulting stalemate, nuclear opponents fought any new nuclear construction while supporters argued that safety risks could be managed through a combination of good design and rigorous safety culture. More recently, the U.S. nuclear industry has operated smoothly and has probably the best reputation internationally for safety culture. While, consequentially, the public discussion has moderated somewhat in the U.S., other countries have continued to grapple with the technology. Sweden and Germany, for example, first decided to phase out nuclear power and then later retracted the policy.

Nevertheless, the largely clean record of global nuclear operations over the past 20 years did much to reduce overt public concern about nuclear safety; and growing interest in controlling greenhouse gas emissions spurred discussion of a renewed global expansion of nuclear power. Worldwide there are now 440 nuclear reactors operating in 30 countries, producing roughly 14 percent of world electricity. Advances in technology were expected by the industry to bring costs down to be competitive with other generation sources (although not everybody agrees). And regardless of public debate in developed countries, emerging economies have committed to substantial expansion of nuclear power over the coming decades to help supply their growing economies. Overall, proponents of nuclear power expected that despite some near-term obstacles, the next decade would witness a “nuclear renaissance.”

Yet the severe and multiple challenges to three separate Japanese reactors in recent days will undoubtedly resurrect those latent questions of safety. Our own history in the U.S. shows that such questions in nuclear energy are extremely difficult to sidestep. Indeed, one of the early approaches taken toward public acceptance of nuclear power was to “educate” what was then viewed as an ignorant public. Such approaches prompted a difficult political discourse and eventually spurred research into public perceptions of risk. Such research underscores the importance of understanding the root causes and different dimensions of unease with this technology, and also suggests that it will never be viewed as a “normal” technology. In Japan, even if all the reactors are stabilized, it is clear that at least three came close to a core meltdown. Moreover, neither the images of the outer building for Fukushima 1 blowing up nor images of civilians being scanned for radiation exposure will be entirely forgotten in the public debate.

Despite what will almost certainly be a heated discussion about nuclear power in coming months, it is likely that these discussions will affect countries differently. National energy situations vary widely, as do public attitudes toward nuclear power. Individual countries will therefore tend to pursue different approaches, occasionally in contravention of public preference. Japan, for example, because of its paucity of indigenous fossil energy resources, decided in 1973 to expand its nuclear capacity. Japanese utilities currently run 54 reactors (47.5 GWe) that provide approximately 29 percent of the country’s electricity. Until recent events, Japan had plans to add another 14 reactors—primarily an advanced design of the type that is currently having problems at Fukushima. Unlike the improvements seen in many other countries, the industry in Japan has been plagued with repeated safety breaches and accused of sheltering an inadequately robust safety culture. It is almost certain that Japan will have to slow, if not stop, its program of nuclear expansion for the foreseeable future. Switzerland has already decided to suspend plans for replacing two aging reactors, and stakeholders in the U.S. are already positioning for a major debate. Other countries, however, and in particular emerging economies, will likely continue to press ahead with domestic plans. For example, China, has already said that its plans will not be derailed by the events in Japan. At the time of this writing, 55 new reactors are under construction in 12 countries. Hopes in the industry had been high that many more would follow.

Failures at Fukushima will require a pause to allow public discourse in each country to catch up with the plans. For reasons of energy security or climate change, it may still be that nuclear power is the right option for some countries to pursue. But it is equally clear that the events in Japan will require an honest discussion about risks and requirements for redundancies. Nuclear power is simply a complex way to boil water to make steam to generate electricity. Some countries may decide that they will prefer to generate electricity with other technologies; some may even be wiling to pay more for their electricity to avoid the risks of nuclear power. Other countries may choose to respond by reinvigorating their regulatory procedures. Regardless of individual regulatory and investment environments, events at Fukushima will complicate planning for nuclear expansion for the coming years in all countries. Fukushima simply exposed what has always, and will always, persist with nuclear power—it is a technology that is perceived as dangerous, and no amount of redundancy will ever be able to completely scrub the spectre of nuclear risk from discussions of energy policy.