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.