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.”