Game Changers for Nuclear Energy

The Nuclear Accident at Fukushima: A Game Changer?

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Kate Marvel and Michael M. May
Global Nuclear Future

The ongoing situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan has the potential to be a game changer for nuclear energy. The events there were not included in planning horizons, yet they now could drastically affect the future of nuclear power. While the situation continues to evolve, a rough picture of the accident and its consequences has begun to emerge. An unprecedented high-magnitude earthquake, coupled with a devastating tsunami, resulted in the failure of the electrical systems that pumped in cooling water to the reactors, leading to severe overheating in both the reactor cores and spent fuel storage pools as well as the release of large amounts of radiation. The accident remains only partly controlled as of this writing (late March 2011), although progress has been made toward controlling it. The total amount of radiation release is not now known.

Predictably, opinion polls show a reduction in popular support for nuclear power, particularly in the United States and most of the European Union. However, in the United States, the political response has been muted, with both the Republican leadership and the White House expressing continued support for nuclear power. At the extreme ends, the German government announced it will accelerate the phase-out of nuclear power while, at the time of this writing, China remains committed under its new Five-Year Plan to a target of more than 11 percent of primary energy from nonfossil sources. Meeting that target requires a large expansion of nuclear power.

What will be the Medium- and Long-Term Effects?

Safety Reviews. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, most countries that currently use nuclear power are likely to undertake major reviews of reactor safety. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has announced an immediate ninety-day review focusing on emergency procedures, to be followed by a more extensive in-depth review of all U.S. reactors. Germany has closed seven of its seventeen reactors for safety checks. China has announced a comprehensive safety review at nuclear plants in operation and under construction. It would be surprising if other countries did not follow suit. These reviews will likely emphasize robustness against any form of loss of cooling, including loss triggered by earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as reconsidering the physical location and operation plan for backup power supplies.

The General Electric Mark 1 Reactor Design. The Fukushima reactors were the General Electric Mark 1 design; they had been in service since the 1970s. While plants of this design have operated safely for a number of decades in a number of locations, the design does not reflect the safety improvements of more recently designed reactors, particularly with regard to backup cooling systems. In fact, the design has been criticized over the years on several counts, including possible rupture of the reactor containment vessel if all cooling failed and lack of containment for the highly radioactive spent fuel rods that had been removed from the reactor core and were cooling in the water pool. Some of those concerns are accentuated by the reactor’s age and the attendant material degradation. In addition, Japan’s nuclear safety agency has criticized TEPCO, the owner of the reactors, for failing to carry out required inspections of equipment, including essential elements of the cooling systems. It is not clear how much this failure affected the disaster.

Thirty-two reactors of the same type as those at Fukushima are in use in several countries, including twenty-three in the United States. A number have received or are currently being considered for license extensions beyond their original planned lifetime.3

Spent Fuel Storage. While it is not clear at this writing how dangerous the situation inside the reactor core containment vessel remains, some of the most severe consequences of the Fukushima accident may result from a loss-of-coolant failure in the spent fuel pools. This possibility will focus attention on the storage and disposal of reactor spent fuel. There are three relevant timescales to consider: short-term storage, where spent fuel must be cooled following its removal from the reactor; medium-term storage, where spent fuel is stored in dry casks, usually on-site; and long-term disposal, which will likely require a geologic repository. Initial reviews will probably focus on the immediate hazards of cooling spent fuel once it is removed from the reactor, with special attention paid not only to protecting and containing the spent fuel that is cooling in ponds but also to large amounts of older but still radioactive spent fuel stored in casks, as is the case in the United States, where no longer-term storage or disposal has been approved. A renewed conversation about long-term storage has already begun.4

Where are the Effects Likely to be Felt?

More than the Usual Suspects. The accident at Fukushima will have implications worldwide, but the effects are likely to differ from country to country and region to region. Development in the United States and the European Union has been slow, with the vast majority of added nuclear capacity taking the form of license extensions and renewals. The future of nuclear power will be determined largely by the countries with the most ambitious nuclear development plans: China, India, Russia, South Korea, and to a lesser extent, Brazil, Argentina, and perhaps South Africa. This realignment of the global nuclear future is significant, possibly diminishing the influence of the traditional nuclear powers. The policies of the United States and the European Union may have less influence on the development plans of the rest of the world.

The Fukushima disaster may impact the future of nuclear power more so than either the Three Mile Island or Chernobyl accidents did. The Three Mile Island accident was contained without public health effects, while the Chernobyl accident involved a Soviet reactor of a model that was not used in the West and that lacked a crucial containment feature. The Fukushima accident, on the other hand, occurred in one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world and one with among the most nuclear experience. Furthermore, it was caused by a tsunami—a worrying aspect given that many reactors in the world, including practically all of China’s reactors, are located by the sea. Moreover, it is the first nuclear disaster to occur in the Internet age, and information, rumors, and speculation have been reported to a wider audience than ever before.

What is the Future for Nuclear Power?

How will the incident in Japan change the balance between the advantages and drawbacks of nuclear power? Given the developing situation, it is too early to make accurate forecasts of its ramifications; but early indications are that the specific political and economic situations of individual countries will dominate their early and intermediate responses. We have noted the early actions of Germany, China, and the United States. France, Japan, South Korea, and other countries that are highly dependent on nuclear-generated electricity have little option but to continue along the nuclear path, at least until new technologies are developed. Japan, however, is likely to be strongly affected, perhaps leading to changes in the leadership and regulation of the nuclear industry, as well as changes in such aspects as siting, reliance on seawalls, and location of backup cooling systems. Much will depend on what happens in the next few weeks. In the longer term, advanced designs that have stronger safety features, and that are less dependent on the operation of backup systems in an emergency, will see their advantage over early designs increase.

It is not possible to anticipate or prevent all accidents, but it is noteworthy that most of the serious accidents that have affected the nuclear industry were in fact anticipated by engineers, operators, or managers, and yet were still not prevented. This fact is specifically true of Fukushima, where Japan’s nuclear safety agency had warned against siting the backup generators on low ground. The cost of prevention in most cases (with the possible exception of Chernobyl) would have been small, not only compared with the cost in dollars and political support of the most expensive accidents, but also compared with the overall cost of nuclear power. Thus, a major lesson from Fukushima and previous accidents or near-accidents concerns the management and supervision of the nuclear industry and the political and economic set of incentives involved.

Over the next few months and years, as the details of the Fukushima accident become clearer, they will affect and inform the continuing conversation about the role nuclear energy will play in the future energy mix. Undoubtedly, the competitors to nuclear power, in both the present world and a world where greenhouse gas emissions are taxed, have been at least temporarily strengthened by the event. For the longer term, while economic factors will continue to play a major role, the perceived likelihood of severe accidents will affect the political acceptability of nuclear power, particularly if it becomes clear that most such accidents can be prevented.


3. For details, see Other pages on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission website give the location of the units and additional relevant information.

4. Matthew L. Wald, “Japan Nuclear Crisis Revives Long U.S. Fight on Spent Fuel,” The New York Times, March 23, 2011.