Is Fukushima Another Wakeup Call?

As Japan still struggles to recover from earthquake and resultant tsunami, a debate has indeed ensued whether nuclear industry will fall into disfavor. If Fukushima nuclear plant accident heightens safety concerns and discourages investors to rely on power generation from reactors, it will be an irony that nuclear industry will suffer a great setback when nuclear renaissance has ushered in so recently. The last decade has witnessed the largest number of countries vying for nuclear power plants and out of 440 such reactors around the world about 60 are being proposed this year as per the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Regardless of lower competitiveness of nuclear energy compared to fossil fuels both in terms of costs and time lag, nuclear industry had generated renewed interest of late as global warming emanating from consumption of traditional fuels like coal etc. captured the world attention. The share of nuclear energy at present is 14% of global electricity generation albeit some countries like France and Japan rely heavily on such power. But the demand for nuclear reactors is intensely rising in Asia and particularly China and India as their economies are enviably booming placing increased need for energy.

Nuclear experts like Charles Ferguson and Michael Marriotte have maintained that nuclear power’s greatest impediment is economic because it is expensive and slow-developing. Ferguson even notes that “When U.S. utilities even mention interest in nuclear power they face their stocks downgraded”. Nevertheless the carbon emission concentration in atmosphere due to use of fossil fuels has considerably influenced countries both developed and emerging economies in going for nuclear energy, which is cleaner.

Regarding the immediate fallout of Fukushima nuclear accident a climate expert like Nathan Hultman at the Brookings Institution says that the impact will be felt by different countries differently. Some countries revisit their nuclear policy quickly as Germany has shut down seven reactors since the accident. Not surprisingly the U.S., which in 1979 faced nuclear meltdown in Three-Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, has begun new safety evaluations of its plants to see how well they can withstand catastrophe due to earthquake, terror attacks, flooding and loss of power.

A number of questions have been raised by Japan’s nuclear accident. These are obviously connected to scrutiny of nuclear plant safety regulations and emergency measures, nuclear design and spent fuel. The issue of spent fuel is more serious as it can be misused for making nuclear weapons. The proliferation concerns of Iran’s ongoing nuclear program have dominated the UN agenda for some years and the U.S. in view of its geopolitical consideration has devoted a lot of energy to ensure that Iran does not go nuclear.

Although Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 despite being a setback for nuclear industry then did not altogether halt the expansion of nuclear power, it is still uncertain if Fukushima accident will be decisive in lowering the global demand for nuclear energy. Notwithstanding this the world scientific community is certainly challenged to develop nuclear design in a way that mitigates the adverse impact should another natural calamity wreak havoc as seen in Japan.

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