The devastating earthquake and tsunami that have raised fears of a nuclear disaster in Japan are already posing a setback to the global momentum in support of nuclear energy.
But the movement won't easily be derailed.
Even if U.S. policy makers respond to the Japanese crisis by delaying plans for new domestic nuclear plants, it’s unlikely other countries such as China or Korea will follow suit, experts predicted. (On Tuesday, Germany said it will shutter all of its nuclear power plants that were operational before 1980.)
Currently there are 65 nuclear plants under construction around the world, many of them in developing nations in Africa and Asia, said William Tucker, author of “Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey.”
“There’s a huge renaissance going on around the world. Everyone realizes that the U.S. has been too hypersensitive toward nuclear energy. It’s a manageable technology,” said Tucker.
On Tuesday, of course, the situation in northern Japan took a sudden and decided turn for the worse. Dangerously high radiation levels were reported following another blast and fire at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, badly damaged by Friday’s 9.0 magnitude earthquake. But Japanese officials said the radiation levels had fallen in recent hours.
The threat of widespread radioactive fallout has led to comparisons with the Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986, but experts say the comparison is not valid.
Nevertheless, in the U.S. some politicians are already calling for the Obama administration to slow efforts to build new nuclear plants. Congressman Ed Markey (D-Mass), a member of two influential energy-related committees, has asked for a moratorium on new construction in areas susceptible to earthquakes until plans can be reviewed in an effort to prevent a threat similar to the one now looming in Japan.
President Obama, a supporter of nuclear energy, has proposed expanding the domestic nuclear program through $36 billion in government loan guarantees for construction of 20 new nuclear plants.
Tucker said there’s no reason for those plans to be scuttled, and he dismisses suggestions that Japan faces a situation similar to the Chernobyl explosion, widely considered the worst nuclear disaster in history.
The main difference is that the Chernobyl plant had no containment structure to hold radioactive contaminants in the event of an explosion, said Tucker. That’s not the case with the Japanese plants -- or any other nuclear plants around the world, for that matter.
“There’s not going to be another Chernobyl,” said Tucker. “It couldn’t happen again.”
The same view was expressed (somewhat more cautiously) by Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], who told a news conference on Monday that it’s “unlikely that the accident would develop” similar to the events in Chernobyl.
Iain Murray, an energy expert with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, predicted that the situation in Japan will unnecessarily exacerbate deep-rooted fears tied to nuclear power that have been ingrained in the public mind ever since the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents.
There is a “general public misunderstanding of what nuclear power is,” he said. “Most people equate nuclear power with nuclear bombs. They think if there is a problem at a nuclear plant it’s going to explode. The reality is that the worst possible meltdown would contaminate the plant and the area around it.” The threat of widespread radiation contamination is almost nonexistent, he added.
The U.S. shouldn’t impose any further delays on its nuclear program, and U.S. energy policy makers -- notably U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu -- have a responsibility to get the facts out and correct any misconceptions, he said.
On Tuesday, Chu issued a statement through the Department of Energy that maintained the administration’s support for nuclear energy: “The American people should have full confidence that the United States has rigorous safety regulations in place to ensure that our nuclear power is generated safely and responsibly. Information is still coming in about the events unfolding in Japan, but the Administration is committed to learning from Japan’s experience as we work to continue strengthening America’s nuclear industry.”
Also Tuesday, the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, Democrat Jeff Bingaman, released a statement in which he said the U.S. should learn from the situation in Japan. While he said additional precautions may be necessary, he did not call for a moratorium on building.
Murray described what happened in Japan as “a one-two punch worse than anyone could have anticipated. (But) despite having this almost inconceivable one-two punch, the reactor is still just barely dangerous,” he said.
Murray said the U.S. has little choice but to move ahead with its nuclear policy given a shift away from coal in recent years in an effort to reduce carbon emissions believed to be damaging to the environment.
“The fact is we need massive amounts of energy in the years to come and there has been a move afoot to take coal out of that energy equation. The only two things that could replace coal – wind and solar energy – are not up to the job,” he said.
That leaves natural gas and nuclear energy. But if coal is eliminated and natural gas is used exclusively for generating electricity, the cost of natural gas is going to spike prohibitively.
“So if you’re taking coal out of the equation, nuclear is the only realistic option to ensure that energy prices don’t skyrocket,” said Murray. “Which is more important: restrictions on coal or restrictions on nuclear energy? That’s the choice (the Obama administration) has to make.”