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First Chornobyl, Then Fukushima. Will Nuclear Energy Survive?

A nuclear plant in Pierrelatte, France, which is likely to remain resolutely in favor of nuclear power despite the events in Fukushima.
A nuclear plant in Pierrelatte, France, which is likely to remain resolutely in favor of nuclear power despite the events in Fukushima.
By Charles Recknagel
When Reactor No. 4 at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant exploded 25 years ago, it seemed nuclear power might die with it.

Around the world, people recoiled in horror as radioactivity from Ukraine spread with the wind. As it settled hundreds and even thousands of kilometers away, scientists monitored the concentrations to see if the areas would become too dangerous to inhabit.

Even today, the health concerns continue in unexpected ways. Britain still restricts the sale of meat from sheep that graze in certain parts of Wales. And Germany bans the sale of meat from boars in the south of the country, as well as the mushrooms they consume.

But if the Chornobyl accident in 1986 shook public confidence in nuclear power, it did not spell its end.

In the following years, the global rate of new power-plant construction slowed. But nuclear plants still kept on providing about 16 percent of the world's growing demand for electricity.

A Nuclear Renaissance

The nuclear industry did so by upping the output of existing plants to largely avoid building new ones in the face of public hostility. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), just one-third of the additional electricity generated by nuclear power over the past two decades was from new plants.
A child's gas mask and shoe at a kindergarten in the abandoned city of Prypiat near Chornobyl

But by 2001, as memories of Chornobyl faded, the climate for nuclear power became favorable again. Rising fossil fuel prices and concerns over global warming prompted talk of a "nuclear renaissance."

As of this year, the IAEA reports that there are 64 new plants under construction in addition to the 443 plants older plants already operating worldwide.

Even the United States joined the turn-around. In 2010, Washington promised to guarantee more than $8 billion in loans to help build the first new U.S. nuclear plant since the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979.

Fukushima Reawakens Old Doubts

Now, as Japan's Fukushima Daiichi reactors produce the worst radiation leaks since Chornobyl, doubts about nuclear power are suddenly back with a vengeance.

Japanese protestor, Mayoko Nakahara, expressed the feelings of many in Japan at an anti-nuclear demonstration in Tokyo last week when she said that the time had come for her country to "get rid of nuclear energy."

"I've had worries about [Japan's] nuclear policies for some time, and if we don't take advantage of this opportunity who knows when the [antinuclear] movement will have this much energy again," she said.

Different Approaches In Different Countries

Rising safety fears have prompted several nations, including China, to freeze plans for new reactors pending reviews. In Germany, which has one of the world's strongest anti-nuclear movements, the government has shut seven of the country's oldest reactors for three months.

But are the Fukushima accident and the reawakened memories of Chornobyl strong enough to put the future of nuclear power in doubt once more?
After the Fukushima accident, many countries have frozen plans for new nuclear plants, pending reviews.

James Acton, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., believes the answer will likely vary from country to country.

"Where public opinion matters, then I think that on average Fukushima is likely to have a negative effect on the growth of nuclear power," he says.

Risks Versus Economic Advantages

Those countries where public opinion matters most correspond closely to the list of countries which currently have most of the world's reactors. In descending order, the countries with the largest number of nuclear power plants are the United States with 104, France with 58, and Japan with 54.

However, among those countries there are widely varying assessments of the risks of nuclear power compared to its economic advantages.

The United States, despite its interest in building a new generation of safe reactors, is becoming increasingly interested in shale gas as an alternative fuel instead.

By contrast, France is resolutely pro-nuclear and is likely to remain so.

And Japan -- in the midst of the Fukushima crisis -- will likely have to go through a prolonged national debate before its future course becomes clear.

But Acton predicts that where public opinion doesn't play a major role in forming government policymaking, nuclear power will continue to expand. Among those countries is Russia, whose 32 current nuclear power plants put it in fourth place in the world ranking.

Vitaly Fedchenko, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden, says Moscow appears fully committed to going ahead with the nuclear energy program it adopted a few years previously.
The IAEA says 39 of the 64 nuclear power plants currently under construction are located in Asia.


"I think the target was [that] 25 percent of electricity production should be nuclear [and that] still stands, at least officially," he says.

"Now, there are questions about how to get there; there are technical issues with production of reactors simply in terms of capacity, but as far as I know on the political level that decision is there and I am not really aware of serious debate about that."

For Moscow, nuclear technology is not only seen as an integral part of the domestic economy but also as a valuable export product.

Russia competes strongly with other nuclear-technology exporters like France, the United States, and Canada for contracts worldwide.

"As far as exporting is concerned…it is seen as a good thing because in Russia there is this discussion about trying to export more hi-tech products as opposed to crude oil and that kind of thing," says Fedchenko.

Asia's Nuclear Power Boom

Today, most of the expansion in nuclear power generation is centered in Asia. The IAEA says that a total of 39 of the 64 plants currently under construction are located there.

Leading the Asian race to harness nuclear power is China.

At present, China has 13 operating nuclear power reactors, with 27 more currently under construction.

Beijing wants to both reduce its use of fossil fuels and costly imports of oil, and as the world's largest carbon emitter, it has promised to reduce its emissions by 2020.

It maintains that this cannot be done without massive development of nuclear power.

"The Chinese have been building nuclear reactors like hot cakes for five to 10 years, and they're going to continue to do this," says Mark Hibbs, another expert on nuclear policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Concerns May Hamper Small Nations' Nuclear Ambitions

If China regards nuclear power as an integral part of its energy plans, so do many smaller developing countries.

The past decade of the global "nuclear renaissance" saw growing numbers of nations like Vietnam, Morocco and Indonesia announce they were considering plans to begin generating nuclear electricity by around 2020.

But the plans of those smaller states may be much more severely affected by the world's latest nuclear disaster than those of bigger countries.

Poorer states need to borrow the billions of dollars necessary to build plants from the international capital market and, after Fukushima, that could become more costly to do.

Acton predicts that the Fukushima crisis will raise the capital market's perception of the risk of investing in nuclear power.

"I think there also is going to be an effect [from Fukushima] on the growth of nuclear power," he says, adding that this will be particularly true of places "where governments don't buy power stations just out of their own pocket [and] where they have to go to the capital markets" to seek funding for power stations, including nuclear power plants.

Just how much rising borrowing costs could dampen developing countries' appetites for nuclear energy remains to be seen.

But the Fukushima accident only adds to the fears of those who question whether smaller states could ever afford to mount the kind of complicated rescue efforts now going on in Japan.

As the world watches the unfolding crisis at Fukushima, both critics and proponents of nuclear power can only feel a sense of dread that so many of the questions first raised by the Chornobyl disaster 25 years ago remain unanswered.

Can nuclear plants be made safe enough to prevent radiation leaks from malfunctions and natural disasters? And, once accidents occur, can rescue efforts sufficiently contain the radiation so it does not spread far and wide with the wind?

Such questions are likely to continue to accompany the development of nuclear power for decades ahead, even as more countries continue to embrace it despite the uncertainty.
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Herb from: US
April 24, 2011 15:13
Not until the waste problem is figured out which may never happen. The problem with nuclear is that the economic costs and the environmental costs are far worse than the other forms of energy. Managing radio-active waste has no end-date, so the long-term costs we pass on to our great, great, great, great grandkids for electricity used today makes the use of nuclear power economically ludicrous. And when something goes wrong, it kills people, and the radiation continues to cause health problems. Natural gas, wind, and solar, are better economic choices for the long-term, even if they they present their own problems.
In Response

by: AtomicZombie from: USA
April 24, 2011 18:19
@Herb, The nuclear waste issue has been addressed on technical grounds - its the political that stymies the equation. Where do I begin? First, we had the IFR, which was cancelled by Clinton. We also had put millions into Yucca, which politicians killed. Now we have reprocessing. The technical issues with nuclear waste can be solved. Ask politicians why they cant come to the waterhole and drink. As an engineer charged with solving technical problems, it frustrates me that we can solve these issues on scientific grounds, but social grounds at least in this country , seem to be lagging, Until the pain is too great, like very extreme global warming, wars over oil, and other things, I guess we will just put our heads in the sand, What are you doing about the problem?
In Response

by: reamon from: US
April 24, 2011 22:51
although the waste problem is the main concern here in the us, france, on the other hand, is so far advanced in nuke technology that they do a sort of "recycling" of the spent fuel rods where the end product is merely radioactive glass and they use the spent rods in both producing electricity and reducing the amount of radioactive waste by something like 90 percent. other countries should look to france as a leader in nuke power and continue to refine the technology so that it produces less waste.
In Response

by: Col from: AUSTRALIA
April 25, 2011 01:49
I agree with Herb. Nuclear poisons the planet with its waste for aeons. We MUST put pressure on world leaders to switch to WWS (Wind Water Solar). See the WWS Wind Water Solar song on YouTube by Deejay Dalvee from Romania - a country affected by Chernobyl fall-out also. Go the protestors - STOP GENPATSU.
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
April 25, 2011 08:17
Read my comment bellow. Not any country have other
Resources. Even slite monopoly by Russia, in stolen,
Gas and oil, already squize CIS countries. Why bother
Create global monopoly of few - even Japan be ruined!

And France, and most of others. One has to build safe!
As build alternative energy, replacing some of the need,
Nuclear and coal sources are necessary for too many.
It wouldn't work, thought, they wouldn't provoke me...

by: Binoculars from: canada
April 24, 2011 23:55
C-H-E-R-N-O-B-Y-L

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
April 25, 2011 01:57
Alternative energy is of coarse the best, but too little too late
For fast breeding Human speciments, fast to bust biosphere,
But slow to develop such energy, also stagnated by sabotage
Of imperial resurectors that controll oil and gas, Maltusiasticly,
Leading World to extermination of most of you - by necessity.

Nuclear is also good, before or if enough energy will supply
The existent populouces. A problem - keep build it unsafe,
First for expediancy, later deliberately - both types energy
Sabotaged first of all because Emperes and World elite
Hate those that resist plagios, dying in pain amplifiers.

I and others like me could design virtually tottal safety,
But we never open texbook on the subjects of energy,
Being plagiarized and crucified since childhood and,
If they steal some, they pervert it to their Devil ends.
It'll be never safe, forever do, by your master devilly.

by: Kamyar from: U.S.A.
April 25, 2011 03:07
Nuclear power plants are, in fact, life-threatening wherever they are -- they represent the most dangerous way to boil water ever devised.

Wind, solar and geothermal energy and other forms of safe, clean power would not cause massive deadly damage because of an earthquake. You will note that those who staunchly defend Nuclear Power are either willfully ignorant of the dangers they represent *or* they have some economic stake in their existence.

No, other forms of energy production are not perfect, but neither is Nuclear. You can't make a statement that because some other form of production is imperfect, therefore, we should just forget about them and just use Nuclear Energy.

This form of logic, at best, is bizarre.
In Response

by: Crebble32 from: USA
April 27, 2011 17:30

Its hilarious that you say, "You can't make a statement that because some other form of production is imperfect, therefore, we should just forget about them and just use Nuclear Energy." When that is exactly what you are saying in contridiction. I don't believe anyone has ever said we should just go solely Nuclear. Solar, wind, and Hydro are very good forms of alternative energy, however there are too many uncontrolable factors that determine their efficiency.

Now nuclear on the other hand is quite controlable. Though there has been a couple horrible incidents (and I definitely in no way intend to lighten the unfortunate situations), nuclear power plants are continually being built better, with more safety regulations and processes. Which by the way, Japan's incident was nothing like Chernobyl. (That is something you can do research on for facts as well)

As for your comment about people defending nuclear power being ignorant, well I believe anyone with any little bit of education and understanding of engineering and/or power would have to disagree. I believe the ones who are ignorant are the ones who jump on forums without knowing much about the industry and actual facts surrounding any kind of power production.

Planes have crashed, buildings have fallen from earthquakes, bombs, and other incedents, cars cause death all the time.... Yet we still utilize the technology, always creating new ways to improve it and the lives we try to save in doing so. So all I ask is that you read and educate yourself on nuclear power (as well as the other forms of alternative energy) so you will really understand why it needs to be a continued part of the world's energy supply and why the other forms (ie solar, wind, hydro) can not solely meet demands. Only then will you have any ground to stand on in dismissing one form or another.
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
May 02, 2011 05:47
Grebble from US is right, unless behind his statements
Are "Back-tellele" and "Per-Soncele". Kamyar reference
To earthquake is self-defeiting - up to 50,000 killed
By Nature in Japan, while radiation threat he billed.

Not nearly that much damage, so far. Cataclizms
Of Cosmos and nature might happen. Main error,
They should built it as far and high from the thing
That likely happen in predictable future, Kamyar...

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