Fukushima's Positive Impact

Its melting nuclear fuel rods may bring about overdue developments in global power systems

3 min read

Fukushima's Positive Impact

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

Amid the stubbornly disappointing string of news reports emanating from Japan's Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear complex, there are signs that its melting nuclear fuel rods are inspiring some important and long-overdue developments in global power systems. And there's good news for both nuclear energy supporters and critics.

Hopeful outcome No. 1: Berlin is getting serious about upgrading the balkanized and inadequate transmission grid that represents a serious liability for Germany's renewable energy ambitions.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision in March to shut down the country's oldest nuclear reactors and temporarily scrub life extensions for the rest was widely seen as a sop to voters in the state of Baden-Württemberg. But it led to real momentum for grid reform. A document leaked from Germany's Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology revealed plans to revamp the power grid—a precondition to replacing nuclear energy with solar, wind, and other renewable power sources.

Back in 2005, the German Energy Agency estimated that the country needed 850 kilometers of new high-voltage lines by 2015 to absorb growing levels of wind power on its fragmented grid. So far, only 90 km have been built, and the challenge keeps growing: An updated study released in November estimated that 3600 km of new lines must be built by 2025.

Hopeful outcome No. 2: China slows its nuclear building spree somewhat. Beijing reaffirmed its nuclear ambitions immediately after Japan's earthquake and tsunami. But then it began to backpedal, suspending new plant approvals and stepping up safety inspections at existing plants. Whether you're a nuclear energy supporter or not, this is very good news.

That's because while China's nuclear future is assured, its nuclear safety is not.

The problem is that China's nuclear exuberance—it has 27 reactors under construction—has outstripped the process of training sufficient numbers of new nuclear operators and inspectors. This serious disconnect inspired surprisingly frank criticism from China's national nuclear safety administration director, Li Ganjie, two years ago—at the time to little apparent effect.

Confronting proposals to more than double the pace of China's nuclear construction schedule, Li courageously warned at an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in Beijing that "over-rapid expansions" could diminish reactor quality and safety. Li lost that round, and China's nuclear capacity goal for 2020, already set to jump more than fourfold to 40 gigawatts, shot up to 86 GW.

Now a revised scheme may be in the offing. Chinese state media have been cited reporting that "China is likely to scale back its ambitious plans…under a new policy that stresses safety instead of rapid development." The Associated Press quoted deputy director of the China Electricity Council, Wei Zhaofeng, predicting that the policy change would trim growth by 10 GW.

That 10 GW may look small, but only relative to China's aggressive agenda. U.S. nuclear power proponents would count themselves lucky if the United States added that much reactor capacity by 2020.

Hopeful outcome No. 3: The Chinese are now also talking about doubling their goal for solar power for 2015, from 5 GW to 10 GW, in response to Fukushima. Solar power is finally getting credit for being fast to install and reliable, a big change for an energy source that had often been characterized as "intermittent" and "insecure."

So if it can be said that any good can come out of a disaster like Fukushima, perhaps it will be a renewed global commitment to rigorous nuclear safety assessment and monitoring and a renewed global interest in other carbon-free energy solutions.

This article is based on a post that appeared on Spectrum's Energywise blog on 4 April 2011.

About the Author

Peter Fairley is a freelance journalist specializing in energy and the environment and a contributing editor to IEEE Spectrum.

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