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Energy Update: World Remains On Nuclear Watch After Japan Crisis

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Since the nuclear disaster in March, only 19 of Japan's 54 reactors are currently functioning. (Photo: Tamlyn Rhodes)
Since the nuclear disaster in March, only 19 of Japan's 54 reactors are currently functioning. (Photo: Tamlyn Rhodes)

WORLD

  • US-NRC releases recommendations to tighten nuclear safety
  • Germany and Switzerland closing nuclear plants; France cutting back
  • China and India picking up nuclear slack to overtake leading nations
  • Japan’s nuclear future still unclear

In light of the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant around 200 miles northeast of Tokyo, there is increasing pressure to step up safety measures worldwide to avoid a similar crisis. With harbingers of nuclear hardship predicting a hundred-year wait before fuel rods at the plant are declared safe, other countries are being spurred into preventative action by taking regulatory measures to maximize nuclear reactor safety.

Stricter Safety Strategy in the US

On July 12, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)’s task force dedicated to reviewing the Fukushima Daiichi accident released a report with recommendations on how to reinforce nuclear safety and mitigate the risk of a similar incident on American territory.

The report specifically focuses on “low-likelihood, high-consequence events”, such as earthquakes, that lead to loss of power in nuclear plants. It examines flaws in NRC regulations, which were pointed out after the nuclear crisis in Japan, such as that the commission does not require diesel generators to be in operation in the case of an empty nuclear reactor core despite the fact that this could mean there is no way of cooling spent-fuel pools should there be a blackout.

Amendments put forward by the NRC task force include improving measures to prevent seismically induced fires and floods, upgrading prolonged blackout backup systems and enhancing emergency procedures. Despite its recommendations to reinforce safety, the task force states that there is no imminent risk to public health and safety as the probability of a disaster reaching beyond the capabilities of a US nuclear power plant is low.

In Japan’s case, backup diesel generators were activated after the loss of power supply but the tsunami knocked out generator power within an hour. Without adequate power to operate cooling systems, the plant went into meltdown mode and a radioactive material leak ensued. The fear in the US is that with similar backup systems the country’s nuclear plants would not be exempt from the same fate should there be a power blackout after a natural disaster.

Currently, NRC regulatory approaches to safety fall into three categories: design-basis events, beyond design-basis events and severe accident mitigation. Design-basis events are extensively catered for in safety measures as they concern the everyday operation of plants and include the maintenance of the pressure boundary of the reactor coolant. Beyond design-basis events are more difficult to protect against as they involve unforeseeable external threats, such as terrorist attacks and sudden blackouts due to earthquakes. The third category deals with severe accident management guidelines, which seek to limit damage in the wake of an emergency.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko stated that the commission will take 90 days to carefully review and consider whether the task force’s recommendations should be implemented.

Europe Exerts Caution

While the US seeks to step up security, the EU reaction to the Fukushima accident has been more adverse. In France, as in the US, the government advocates nuclear energy, stressing that adequate security is a top priority. Atomic energy currently meets more than 75% of electricity demands in France, making it the world’s largest net exporter of electricity, according to the World Nuclear Association. Though a complete pullout of nuclear energy within the next 30 to 40 years has been raised as an option, the French government is leaning toward a scenario where the country cuts back on nuclear energy as a source of electricity to two thirds.

Meanwhile, in June, Germany announced its decision to abolish nuclear power altogether by 2022. Industry heads have vocalized their fears regarding negative impact on productivity as industrial electricity prices could rise 40% by 2050 as reported in a recent article in The Japan Times.

Switzerland will follow suit, and by 2034 it plans to close five reactors that currently provide 40% of the country’s electricity in favor of fossil fuel, cleaner forms of energy and hydroelectric power, which already meets 50% of the country’s electricity demands.

No-Nonsense Nuclear in China, India

While Japan has provided wake up calls of varying intensity to some countries – like Germany and the US – nuclear energy is still seen favorably by some nations, with nuclear power projects moving forward as planned.

China, for example, plans to have 30 reactors up and running within five years, reaching 70 reactors before the decade comes to a close. However, China is also set to cash in on the expanding green energy sector, with over 75% annual growth in green technologies. Its growth in this industry is impressive especially when compared with the US, which has seen a 28% annual growth in clean technologies over the past few years.

Emerging economies, such as India and China, may well overtake developed nations as the US and the EU stall on their nuclear development plans in the wake of the Fukushima accident. The World Nuclear Association currently has 20 operational nuclear plants on record for India, with another four in the process of being built. In total, India is rumored to have an expected 48 reactors in operation by 2023, which should set it well on its way to achieving its goal of having a 20,000 MWe nuclear capacity on line by 2020 and 25% of electricity supplied from nuclear power by 2050.

Disaccord In Japan

What does the future of energy look like in Japan, following the aftermath of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters? Before the Fukushima accident, 30% of Japan’s electricity was supplied by atomic energy. A July 6 article by Reuters stated that only 19 of the nation's 54 reactors are currently functioning, and Tokyo Electric shares have taken an 80% nosedive since the accident, with Chubu Electric Power and Kansai Electric Power both falling more than 30%.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has sparked confusion with proposals to conduct stress tests on reactors, following Trade Minister Banri Kaieda’s green light to put Japan’s nuclear power plants back in operation. Kan also proposed that renewable energy sources supply over 20% of energy in Japan by 2020.

During a recent news conference, Kan said: “Given the enormity of the risks associated with nuclear power generation, I have realized nuclear technology is not something that can be managed by conventional safety measures alone. I believe we should aim for a society that is not dependent on nuclear power generation."

He said it was premature to set a timeframe for achieving that goal.

Key Statistics – Global Nuclear Energy (source: World Nuclear Association)

  • In the US, 104 license-holding nuclear power plants provide one-fifth of the nation’s electricity. 
  • The US is the world's largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for over 30% of global nuclear generation of electricity.
  • The EU is equally dependent on nuclear energy, with France at the top of the list getting 75% of its electricity from this source, followed by Slovakia and Belgium at 52% and 51% respectively.
  • France is the world's largest net exporter of electricity due to its low cost of generation; Nuclear power will earn France over €3 billion in 2011.
  • At the other end of the spectrum Lithuania gets 100% of its electricity from sources other than nuclear energy; China uses less than 2% nuclear energy and Brazil just over 3%.
  • There are 439 functioning nuclear reactors in existence worldwide, spanning more than 30 different countries and meeting close to 15% of the world’s electricity demand.

By Ellsy O'Neill for
Ellsy O'Neill is a Paris-based writer, proofreader and translator. She covers industry, culture and current affairs.

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