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What Does Japan’s Disaster Mean for the Global Nuclear Industry?

The tragic events that occurred in Japan in the past week have led to what many are calling “the world’s worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl,” and the potential for more problems and complications is still a very real threat. In the wake of the largest earthquake in Japanese history, which triggered a tsunami, a nuclear crisis is the last thing Japan needs. To say Japan is under the world’s spotlight is an understatement. The effects of the natural disasters and now the emerging and ongoing battle with the nuclear crisis are on display on media outlets around the globe. Aside from the very real threat to the people of Japan, the issues raised by this nuclear crisis will have a daunting affect on the nuclear power industry all across the globe.

Historically, environmental and military associations with nuclear power have, in some sense, “stigmatized” nuclear energy technologies, limiting the extent of use and related interest. The events of this past weeks will likely result in a step in the wrong direction for the nuclear power industry. There are 104 nuclear power plants in the United States which can account for approximately 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. It is likely that every one of the hundred and four will now be under the microscope, facing scrutiny from anti-nuclear groups, safety commissions and the American public. According to the Civil Society Institute, based on a poll which was conducted by ORC International, 58 percent of Americans stated that they are now less supportive of nuclear energy after the crisis in Japan. Based on these poll results, a majority of U.S. citizens if they had the option would stop new nuclear power construction and shift away from nuclear power to wind and solar power. What may be a more alarming discovery would be that survey concluded that a majority of Americans living near nuclear power plants would not know what to do in the event of nuclear reactor emergency, despite regulations that nuclear plants are required to provide annual detailed emergency plans to residents within the 10-mile evacuation zone of its facilities.

Despite nuclear facilities being designed to withstand the necessary external events, such as earthquakes, accidents do happen. The current spike in radiation and increasing fears of a potential power plant meltdown are causing the world to take a second (and third) look at the safety concerns of nuclear energy. Countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Spain, and India have already reviewed their nuclear precautions, possibly considering other options for clean energy where possible. European Union member states and their nuclear industry representatives have also agreed to conduct a round of stress tests at their 143 nuclear plants later this year. In the United States, the events in Japan have had California lawmakers calling for increased security measures to be taken and for all nuclear plants to revisit the risks of an accident from a major quake or tsunami. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has stated that they will be conducting a thorough review of the nation’s nuclear operations in the wake of the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. This has caused nuclear power companies to delay or stop work on nuclear power projects. This can be credited to the fear and uncertainty of the regulatory environment in the times to follow.

Nuclear energy is one of the key technology movements intended to aid in reducing the global dependence on fossil fuels. Industry experts have noted that, before the incident, global nuclear power plant construction was on the rise. It is estimated that within the next twenty years this global market has the potential to be a $400 billion opportunity. Now the balancing act begins: do we wait and see what happens next in terms of the future of nuclear energy, or do we focus on other renewable energy solutions? The nuclear industry has come a long way to improve its image as a clean, alternative energy source; however the accident in Japan strikes fear again that nuclear energy is not safe. There have been major accidents in the past, and from these downfalls have come lessons learned. Only time will tell if the ongoing events in Japan will help to improve and increase the safety concerns surrounding the nuclear industry, or if it will hinder nuclear energy development for good.

Manniche Alves is a commercialization analyst for Foresight Science and Technology.

Manniche Alves
Manniche Alves is a commercialization analyst for Foresight Science and Technology.
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7 thoughts on “What Does Japan’s Disaster Mean for the Global Nuclear Industry?

  1. “nuclear industry has come a long way to improve its image as a clean, alternative energy source” This is a joke. How can anyone seriously use the phrase “clean, alternative energy” when the waste products are deadly to all living beings for tens of thousands of years? Nice try, Manniche Alves, but there is no way you will be able to position this toxic, insane technology as “clean” or “alternative”. It is insane and will be shelved in all countries with the next decade.

  2. It means that the NRC and nuclear companies need to be more vigilant and on top of compliance, maintenance, inspections, and other aspects associated with safety from top to bottom within the organizations. They also need to do a better job of conveying that to the general American public and making their practices and reports more transparent. Or at least educating the public more about what is being done and what is available.

  3. Ditto John G.! You said it perfectly. It’s also sad that the public doesn’t understand geothermal and the potential of our oceans to provide energy via the currents. Nuclear is dirty and dangerous.

  4. Recent events in Japan have almost certainly killed the construction of new nuclear power plants forever. That’s too bad, because we could use the carbon-free electricity, but the economics are fundamentally against them and only getting worse, not better.

    Every year renewable energy costs come down, but nuclear costs go up, and the sudden realization that the spent fuel rods constitute an environmental threat that could be more serious than the reactor vessel itself is only going to add costs. In ten years’ time, when all of the safety reviews and redesigns have been completed, there won’t be any way to stack the economic deck to make them appear to make sense.

    The political winds that are blowing hard against massive government intervention in the economy are unlikely to abate any time soon either, and between the massive loan guarantees and liability waivers that are required to build nuclear plants, it’s just not going to happen.

    Just another good idea that was obsolete before it was perfected. It happens all the time.

  5. John G said it perfectly, nuclear energy is not, and never has been, a viable option – certainly nothing coming even vaguely close to being a good alternative. It’s also utterly failed to deliver on it’s promise – that being that nuclear energy would be able to provide free energy to nations – what a joke that was!

    Apart from anything else, the resources required to run a nuclear power plant are in even lower supply than any other fossil fuel – not exactly a ‘sustainable’ way to go. The waste is also constantly ignored by people, but it’s a significant issue for nuclear energy. The power plants are also heavily reliant on water to cool the reactors (the lack of which caused the issue for Japan in the first place), another resource that is dwindling. Just look at the impact on nuclear power in the EU during the last heat wave and corresponding water shortage over there – energy production from nuclear power down 60%. The risk associated with major failures is also ridiculously high. If a wind turbine fails dramatically, so what, nobody dies, you can still live next door and eat the food and drink the water. That we would consider the risks associated with a catastrophic failure at a nuclear power plant as ‘acceptable’ is insane!

    Wind, tidal, solar, these are the technologies we need to invest heavily in if we want to continue our energy usage at current rates. Sure, I agree there is a fair bit of work to be done, especially regarding the embodied energy of solar, but if we threw as much money at developing that as we’ve wasted on nuclear energy, we’d be there already.

    It’s also worth remembering that reducing our energy consumption will greatly change the balance of this issue. As a society, we are incredibly wasteful when it comes to energy. If all we did was remove the waste, the energy consumed that delivered no value whatsoever, we’d find that our desperate need to continually increase our energy production would greatly diminish, giving us the breathing space we need to develop a long-term solution that doesn’t involve such significant risks.

  6. How can you say that nuclear power is dirty when wind power has extremely high production costs, geographical impacts, and creates a huge carbon footprint just to design and develop. The public needs to be better educated on nuclear energy, especially regarding the technical and scientific improvements that have been implemented for several years. Adding the necessary compliance to ensure the safety of the public is the proper way to manage the future of nuclear energy.

  7. one of the problems with solar power is the amount of area it take to produce energy. Take for example Serpa solar power plant in Portugal. Using the latest sun tracking technology they produce only 11Mw of power on panels that cover 150 acres of land. Where as the nuke plant in southport NC sitting on some 30 acres of land produces 1875Mw of power.

    That a big waste of land when using solar panels. the land can not be farmed due to shading factors. Putting panels in remote location’s will not work due to transmission line restraints or the lack of. Same is true for wind power..

    Head out to calif and see the wind farms. You will see not every turbine is turning all the time.

    yes nuclear is more dangerous than wind but for the most part they are safe. look at france, germany etc, they have almost 50% or higher nuclear and there has not been a major accident in the past 30 yrs..

    Japan went through a major earthquake and tsunami, that plus poor communications and the need to feel superior to the world caused them to not get needed help till almost too late. This is japan burden to bear now.

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