Nearly 25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, the public perception of the safety of nuclear power had finally begun to recover even in such risk-averse markets as the United States. Now a tsunami in northern Japan has washed away that new confidence. Will the disaster at Fukushima set nuclear power back yet again? And will nuclear power ever be safe enough to suit an anxious public? (First in a series on the future of nuclear power.)

As disasters go, tsunamis have one advantage: they are over quickly. Once the wave washes out, the survivors are left in peace to cope with the devastation. But damage to a nuclear power plant denied even that small consolation to the residents of Fukushima, Japan, after they were struck on March 11 first by a 9.0 earthquake and then, more seriously, by a 10-meter high (33 feet) tsunami. Although more than a month has passed, the situation in the three reactors with the most damage at the Fukushima One nuclear plant remains “very serious,” according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and is evidently nowhere near an end. IAEA officials will say only that they see “early signs of recovery in some functions.”

By the numbers, the nuclear disaster is dwarfed by the tsunami, which killed more than 20,000 people along the northeastern coastline of Japan. So far, the release of radiation has not been linked to any fatalities—even the deaths of two workers at the plant are being blamed on the tsunami, and not radiation poisoning.

But for the Japanese, the only people in the world to have suffered from nuclear attacks, the incident has loomed large in the public consciousness. Globally, too, the ongoing drama at the plant has squeezed out news about the rest of the recovery, underscoring the deep unease many people still feel about nuclear power—though nuclear plants have been generating electricity for civilian purposes for more than 50 years, and globally produce16 percent of all electricity, according to the IAEA.

Politically, the incident comes at a bad time for industrial policymakers. Desperate for alternatives to fossil fuels, especially for power plants, many countries had been looking more closely at nuclear power as a potential source of energy. Caught between worries about the contribution of fossil fuel consumption to climate change and concerns that renewable energy supplies such as wind and solar can’t meet the world’s needs for electricity, nuclear has looked like an obvious way forward.

No longer. “Things were improving,” says Frigyes Reisch, a professor of nuclear power safety at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm. “I think nuclear power plants had become safer, but now there is a full stop.”

Will the Fukushima incident set nuclear power development back, as the two prior major accidents did, or will the urgency of the need for massive new sources of non-carbon-based energy trump public fears?

Nuclear Now
Proponents cite France’s nuclear record as Exhibit A of their case for the advantages of nuclear energy. More than 70 percent of the electricity needs of France’s 65 million people are met by nuclear power, and nuclear plants have been operating now for nearly 40 years with no major mishaps.

They note, too, that though nuclear power has been in commercial use for more than a half-century, there have been only three major incidents—at Fukushima, Chernobyl in 1986, and Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania, in 1979—and only Chernobyl resulted in deaths. The UN World Health Organization (WHO) and the IAEA estimate that 56 people died as a direct result of the radiation at Chernobyl and roughly 4,000 more will die eventually.

These are not many casualties, compared with, say, the 2 million premature deaths that WHO estimates are caused by air pollution every year. Yet despite those figures, and even in an age when the burning of fossil fuels is widely blamed for terrifying changes in the climate, nuclear power remains unpopular in many quarters—especially since Fukushima.

In Germany, the anti-nuclear Green Party won a record 24 percent of the vote in the March 27 elections, a showing pundits credited to Fukushima. The effect is seen even in France, where one poll conducted March 30, three weeks after Fukushima, showed that 57 percent of the French would like to do away with their nuclear plants—a sharp downturn in support from a March 15 poll in which 55 percent wanted the program to continue.

No Exit
But what the French say they want and what they will get are likely to remain different things, at least for the near future—particularly since, unlike the Germans, they don’t want to pay for the preference: the majority of French also say they would be unwilling to pay more for their electricity to cover a transition away from nuclear power.

Some industry experts see a similar scenario likely to play out on the global stage, with practicality and cost concerns outweighing fear. After all, energy prices were low for the most part post-Chernobyl and through the 90s, making it easier then to avoid thinking about the need for nuclear power.

Gregoire Postel-Vinay, an energy economist at France’s Ministry of Economy, Finance and Industry, notes two differences in today’s situation: oil prices are high and the world hit peak oil production in 2006, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Finally, although solar and wind power use is growing rapidly worldwide, some nuclear proponents argue that those sources of energy still aren’t up to the task. “People have to realize that this dream of renewables, wind and sun, is simply not enough—it costs a lot,” says KTH’s Reisch. “People will realize they have to choose between two bad things—nuclear or oil and coal.”

Giant nuclear plants can also meet the intense energy needs of cities more easily than renewables can, because of the natural fluctuations in wind and sun availability and their geographical dispersal, experts say.

It’s a fact not lost on China, which has 160 cities of a million or more people. BQ Lin, an economist at Xiamen University in China, believes that China may slow its plans to build nuclear plants but will not change its fundamental strategy to increase its nuclear capacity. China simply doesn’t have many choices for clean development, Lin says.

However, Postel-Vinay of the French finance and industry department believes that the Fukushima disaster will lead to a change of course in the industry. First, he says, it will set back cheaper nuclear designs, such as the new low-cost models developed by the Koreans, as concerns about safety become more top of mind for utility buyers. Second, if Germany follows through with its dream of shutting down all of its nuclear plants, electricity costs elsewhere in Europe, particularly France, might rise.

Already a post-Fukushima government shutdown of seven older plants this spring in Germany has turned the country from a net energy exporter of 7,000 megawatts to a net importer of 5,000 megawatts. (A megawatt can light about 1,000 homes.) Ironically, as of April, Germany had to make up the difference with electricity from nuclear-reliant France and the Czech Republic, which produces about 50 percent of its power with nuclear energy.

“The worldwide impact is low, but the local impact will be high, with very likely a strong increase of electricity costs, and, maybe, shortages in the short term (the 2011/2012 winter could be a problem, with the seven plants closed),” Postel-Vinay writes in an email.

Staying in the Mix
For most countries, nuclear seems likely to remain in the mix for some time to come.

Such an outcome may not be so bad, if nuclear experts are right. They argue that the risks of these next-generation plants are likely to be much lower than those of the plants now operating. The Fukushima plant had been in operation for 41 years—which means that it was probably designed in the 1950s, says Jose Reyes, chief technology officer of NuScale Power, a nuclear design startup in Corvallis, Oregon.

Others note that earlier disasters were also in plants that had what are now antiquated designs: Chernobyl didn’t have a containment dome. Even the more recent Three Mile Island disaster happened before the dawn of the personal computer, a development Reyes says has greatly improved training for personnel.

In the 70s, plants in the United States ran at an average of 65 percent capacity, says Reyes. Now, the average is more than 90 percent, thanks to operational improvements, he notes. “The technology has changed so much,” says Reyes, who began his career at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1979, “but most folks don’t really get to see that.”

As for improvements in safety, the latest designs of Areva, the French nuclear giant (and ParisTech Review patron), include a huge 1,650-megawatt model, one of the biggest ever built, whose enhanced safety features make it resistant even to plane crashes.

Others see safety in smallness. While Areva’s model might generate enough electricity to power as many as 1.65 million homes, a design being pioneered by NuScale is an ultra-small 45-megawatt reactor that might light perhaps 45,000 homes. NuScale hopes to reach more scale by stringing together a number of units, a practice that conceptually at least sounds a lot like the IT practice of distributed computing.

Reyes argues that smaller is safer for a number of reasons. The biggest: the dome at Fukushima could withstand 60 pounds of pressure per square inch, but because of its compactness, the NuScale plant could resist as much as 600 pounds.

The small unit is also able to operate using a convection-based cooling system that requires no pumps, according to Reyes. That feature may be more attractive to power planners now, as the failure of water-cooling pumps was the major reason for the Fukushima disaster.

Of course, production is only one source of the public’s nuclear anxiety. Another is what to do with the poisonous spent fuel, which may remain dangerous for thousands of years. In the next article in this series on the future of nuclear power, we will look at the spent-fuel question—what is done with spent fuel now, what might be done with it, and why after 55 years of commercial nuclear power a definitive solution to fuel disposal has yet to be achieved.

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