The Scientific Estate: Japan's Nuclear Emergency and the Future of Nuclear Power

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Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.This column expresses the opinion of the author and not the position of the IEEE.

As the scale of Japan's nuclear emergency emerges, experts in Japan and the United States say the country now faces many problems with its crippled reactors and they worry that radioactive releases of steam could go on for weeks or even months.

To be sure, the uncertainties make any solid assessment impossible, but already Japan's nuclear crisis seems like a serious setback for humanity's attempt to reduce, quickly and decisively, greenhouse gas emissions in electricity generation.

There's of course the ill health effects of radiation releases from Japan's stricken reactors--effects that could extend far beyond Japan's borders and its people. And these radiation releases will occur even if Japan avoids a full meltdown of the nuclear cores in two reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Even if these meltdowns are avoided, the calamities are the worst experienced by nuclear-power operators since Chernobyl 25 years ago.

While a repeat of the Chernobyl disaster isn't likely at this point, confidence in nuclear power has taken a gigantic hit. The breakdown in nuclear-safety systems in Japan has done grave damage to the elusive dream of expanding nuclear power in the hopes of bringing on stream more sources of energy that don't expand the emission of greenhouse gases.

In recent years, the specter of climate change ignited a revival in nuclear power. I was one of its cheerleaders, writing positive stories about a nuclear resurgence in one of Time's stable of magazines ("Nuclear Spring," in November 2004). I published an article the following year in the San Francisco Chronicle in which I argued that the safety standards had sufficiently increased, and the perils of fossil-fuels had sufficiently risen, for even hardened "greens" to end their opposition to nuclear power and embrace a rapid expansion, if not in the U.S. then at least in China and India, densely populated countries with enormous electricity needs and a penchant for burning coal to satisfy these needs.

In the United States, President George W. Bush eased restrictions on the construction of new nuclear plants. Then in January, President Obama pledged to help accelerate the building of new plants, which he described as adding to the supply of "clean energy" in the country. Now Obama may be forced to backtrack. Already members of Congress are sounding alarms about nuclear power's future (today 104 nuclear plants supply about 20% of U.S. electricity). Some leading politicians took to Sunday talk shows and other venues to say that the Japanese crisis should prompt at least a pause in the U.S. effort to restart the country's nuclear industry, if not put an end to it, the Boston Globe reported.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, said Japan's crisis illustrates why the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant should not operate after next year. The day before Japan's earthquake, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended the plant's license for 20 years beyond 2012, when its original license was set to expire.

"We act as if they can be run beyond their design life, when the engineering is primitive compared to what one would build today,'' Shumlin said. "I think the tragedy in Japan should awaken a reexamination of our irrational exuberance about running our aging plants beyond their design life.''

Added Senator Joe Lieberman on CBS's "Face the Nation," "I don't want to stop the building of nuclear power plants, but I think we've got to kind of quietly, quickly put the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened in Japan as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami and then see what more, if anything, we can demand of the new power plants that are coming on line."

The subject of relicensing existing plants, while contentious, is nowhere near as bitter as the debate over building new plants. Until the Japan crisis, experts widely extolled the nuclear-power industry for transforming the standards of safety and operational care since the Three Mile Island calamity in 1979. Nuclear plants are today operating at 95 percent efficiency, compared to about half that in the 1960s. The improvement has been explained by Joseph Rees in his classic work on nuclear safety, Hostages of Each Other.

After Japan, the safety transformation, while seeming undeniable at least in the U.S. nuclear sector, will be called into question. And critics will seize on a chilling logical deduction: If wealthy, stable Japan has been found out to be cutting corners in nuclear safety, what hope does the world have that China and India will avoid the same pitfalls?

The Chinese government issued a firm statement Monday reiterating its commitment to the expansion of its sources of nuclear power. China is currently building about 28 reactors – more than any other country in the world -- and aims to start building nuclear plants with a capacity of about 40 gigawatts by 2015, Reuters reported.

While the Chinese government, with its top-down administration system, has the clout to stay on its official nuclear-power plan, India may well retreat. The potential meltdown at a nuclear plant struck by Japan's record temblor may be "a big dampener" on India's program, Shreyans Kumar Jain, chairman of the Nuclear Power Corp. of India, told Bloomberg.  India has plans to spend $175 billion on nuclear generation in the next 20 years. "It will be very difficult to sell the idea of nuclear power to people for any political party after the Japan disaster," said Debasish Mishra, Mumbai-based senior director at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.

In the U.S., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission currently has applications for 20 new reactors, and four to eight newly constructed units are expected to be operating between 2016 and 2018,  John Keeley, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group, told the Los Angeles Times. But Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner, said Saturday that most of those proposed projects were not viable even before the Japanese crisis because private investors were unwilling to fund them, even with government subsidies.

For proponent of nuclear power, the Japan accident may speed discussions over strengthening the power of the International Atomic Energy Agency.  National governments are inherently conflicted over regulating nuclear-power safety, if only because their citizens depend on electricity as an essential. So national regulators see many disincentives to going hard on its nuclear-power operators. International inspectors might not be swayed by national needs and loyalties, instead concentrating more intensely on safety threats. Only with the emergence of a higher global standard for safety--with inspections and compliance taken out of the hands of national regulators -- can nuclear power possibly overcome the doubts raised by the Japan crisis.

About the Author

Photo of G. Pascal Zachary

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is the author of Showstopper!: The Breakneck Pace to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft (1994), on the making of a Microsoft Windows program, and Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (1997), which received IEEE’s first literary award. Zachary reported on Silicon Valley for The Wall Street Journal in the 1990s; for The New York Times, he launched the Ping column on innovation in 2007. The Scientific Estate is made possible through the support of Arizona State University and IEEE Spectrum.

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