Pessimism Reigns a Year After Fukushima

Media forecast a gloomy future for the nuclear industry

The barrage of stories worldwide on the first anniversary of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant provided a largely gloomy forecast for the future of the nuclear industry.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 undersea earthquake off the northeastern coast of Japan trigged a massive tsunami that hit the Fukushima plant, causing severe damage and meltdowns in three reactors. A year later, pundits are still debating the fallout, not only for Japan, but also for a world searching for the reliable energy sources of the future. While some anniversary reports struck a note of techno-optimism about major strides in safety, the pendulum swung decidedly toward techno-pessimism about the major obstacles preventing nuclear power from becoming a bigger player in global power production and efforts to mitigate climate change.

A front-page New York Times story from Ohi, Japan on March 9, “Nuclear Power Nears Standstill for the Japanese,” kicked off a weekend’s worth of coverage laying bare the new reality of energy options post-Fukushima. Noting that all but two of the country’s 54 commercial reactors are now offline, with “the last operating reactor to be idled as soon as next month,” reporter Martin Fackler wrote that “Japan—once one of the world’s leaders in atomic energy—will have at least temporarily shut down an industry that once generated a third of its electricity.”

While the Japanese government clings to long-term hopes of getting the reactors up and running again, Fackler reported that for now, its citizens have made do with “a drastic conservation program,” reducing their use of air conditioning and office lights, while increasing power generation from conventional plants that burn natural gas and other fossil fuels. Another good portrait of the new landscape was found in The Guardian, which explained “how Fukushima is leading to a nuclear-free Japan” as public attitudes harden against nuclear power.

Techno-pessimism was also prominent in more global assessments of the future of nuclear power. The Economist’s cover carried the blunt headline, “Nuclear energy—The dream that failed.” Its 14-page special report concluded that, “a year after Fukushima, the future for nuclear power is not bright—for reasons of cost as much as safety.” While “nuclear power will not go away,” reporter Oliver Morton argued, “its role may never be more than marginal.”

In stark contrast, the Financial Times took a rare optimistic view of the situation in an upbeat interview with Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl accident the world “had a nuclear renaissance and perhaps we got a bit complacent,” Amano said, adding that complacency “is the enemy of nuclear safety.” The disaster at Fukushima, he said, has proven to be “an important wake-up call,” which has triggered a “nuclear safety renaissance.”

“Nuclear power still has a role to play as a source of low-carbon electricity,” wrote FT correspondent Sylvia Pfeifer. While some countries, such as Germany, have decided to phase-out nuclear power, the World Nuclear Association says that 60 new reactors are currently under construction globally, roughly two-thirds in emerging economies such as China. Another 163 are on order or planned (prior to Fukushima, 62 were under construction and 156 on order or planned).

In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last month approved the construction and licensing of two new nuclear reactors at the existing Vogtle plant in Georgia, the first such approvals in this country since the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident. On the anniversary of the Fukushima triple disaster—earthquake, tsunami, nuclear accident—local television covered anti-nuclear protestors who gathered at the Vogtle plant for a “day of remembrance” and warnings that the NRC had moved too fast in its approval. NRC commissioners will appear this week at a Senate hearing examining nuclear safety a year after Fukushima.

In the blogosphere, of course, commentary swung between the pro- and anti-nuclear positions, while Twitter lit up with a surge of #fukushima tweets in a multitude of languages. In a post titled “The Nukes of Hazard,” Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm concluded that nuclear power is too costly to be a major climate solution.

But science writer Michael Lemonick, in a caustic commentary for Climate Central, “No Nukes? Only If You Believe in Magic,” said that, like it or not, nuclear power will necessarily remain in the energy mix: “So while nukes have plenty of issues, it might be premature, albeit understandable, to rule them out as part of the climate solution. They have plenty of safety issues, and they’re hellishly expensive to build, but engineers are working on safer, cheaper nuclear plants.”

Unlike Japan, which has been forced to conserve energy, Lemonick noted that developed—and now developing—countries are unwilling to sacrifice to create a low-carbon economy in order to fight climate change. In the US, “we’re happy to do something about it — as long as that something doesn’t involve giving up relatively cheap plentiful electricity and our Constitutional right to drive long distances on relatively cheap, plentiful gas,” he chided.

Meanwhile, US cable television, which filled the airwaves with Fukushima coverage a year ago (often with anchors who showed little to no understanding of nuclear power and terms such as meltdown), appeared to pay limited attention to the anniversary on the day of. CNN midday shows focused on tax apps and a film about bullying, while the evening news shows focused on a new tragedy capturing the headlines—a rogue American soldier on a killing rampage in Afghanistan—as well as the familiar 2012 storylines of presidential election politics and the state of the economy. (Anderson Cooper did feature the Fukushima accident on his Friday night show, including film from an undercover writer with a hidden camera detailing risky worker conditions in the plant cleanup.)

As is so often the case with natural disasters, images overwhelmed words in the anniversary coverage. One of the most poignant images was a Reuters photo of two Japanese evacuees wearing white protective suits and masks while returning briefly to the ghost town of Okuma to mourn victims of the deadly earthquake and tsunami.

The haunting image, which accompanied a post on Time’s Global Spin blog, was a vivid reminder that a mandatory 20-kilometer evacuation zone remains off limits indefinitely because of radioactive contamination surrounding the disabled Fukushima plant. The post noted that many of the relocated citizens long to return home, but “nobody knows for sure whether or not Okuma — population 11,500 before last March — will ever be inhabited again.”

A Canadian television website showed the Okuma mourners laying flowers at the somber ceremony honoring their lost loved ones. The Guardian’s website carried a moving video of the Okuma ceremony, including a moment of silence observed across Japan, interrupted only by the sound of press cameras snapping photos of the event.

Elsewhere, there were the familiar images of anti-nuclear protestors across the globe, from a candlelight vigil in Tokyo in which participants formed a human chain around Japan’s parliament building, to the UK, where numerous protests were held at nuclear power plant sites.

The question is whether the pessimistic tone of the anniversary coverage was an echo of those mournful and angry images or something more organic. Pundits and the media can have short memories, and one day the techno-optimism might return. Only more time will tell whether improvements in nuclear safety and technology will help fuel a turnaround.

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter. Tags: , , , ,