Thursday, May 26, 2011

What The Fukushima Nuclear Crisis Means for Japan, U.S. And The World

The triple disasters that hit north-eastern Japan on March 11—a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, followed by devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis following the failure of cooling systems at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant—have given unprecedented spotlight and momentum to debates surrounding the safety and the very use of nuclear power in Japan, the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Nuclear energy accounts for close to 14% of electricity generation globally. While nuclear power has very high start-up costs, once up and running, it can provide relatively cheap power without producing carbon emissions (The Economic Intelligence Unit). According to Economic Intelligence Unit, Japan had 54 operable nuclear reactors before the March 11th disaster and nuclear power generated approximately 27% of electricity in Japan in 2010. In France, which has the second highest number of nuclear reactors (58) after United States (104), electricity generation through nuclear power accounts for a much higher 77%. In the U.S., the 104 operating nuclear reactors account for 20.2% of electricity production. (An overview of number of nuclear power plants in operation throughout the world and electricity generated is available via an interactive map at Npr.org)

As Japan continues the battle to bring the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to a stable state within six to nine months, Prime Minister Naoto Kan on May 6th called for a temporary closure of Hamaoka nuclear plant, “an ageing facility on a tectonic fault line that would pose a tremendous risk for Tokyo if it suffered the same fate as the Fukushima Daiichi plant.” As additional details trickle in regarding the series of events that unfolded at the Fukushima nuclear plant, efforts are underway to assess Japan’s handling of the nuclear accident. According to The New York Times, the nuclear oversight body of the United Nations, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with its 18 member international team, has started its investigation into the accident. Furthermore, the Japanese Government itself is undertaking an independent inquiry into its response to the disaster.

Announcements of evacuation in Japan more than 10 weeks into the disaster, this time around a greater radius surrounding the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant only add to the gravity of the crisis surrounding Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The BBC that the no-go zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant had been extended and that the residents of towns of Kawamata and Iitate were being sent to evacuation centers.

The disaster at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and its far-reaching aftermath have significantly altered the landscape in which nuclear power plants operated. The Economist notes that in an opinion poll conducted by Asahi Shimbun, the percentage of those opposed to nuclear energy in Japan had risen to 41% from 28% in 2007, with women being the strongest opponents. As more details are made available regarding the contributing factors towards the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, Japan and the rest of the world will learn lessons far too costly to ignore. As Japan’s own efforts towards reviewing energy use, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced on May 10th “his intention to rewrite from scratch a blueprint, scarcely a year old, that planned roughly to double nuclear power’s contribution, accounting for half of Japan’s energy mix by 2030.”

In the U.S., the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), an independent body created by Congress in 1974, implemented a 24-hour monitoring of the nuclear crisis in Japan until as recently as mid-May. NRC is the primary body responsible for regulating nuclear power plants and other uses of nuclear materials. Following the disaster in Japan, the NRC launched a two-step reiew of U.S. reactor safety: a 90-day review to be completed in July and an in-depth evaluation of emergency operations and procedures to be completed by the end of the year. A summary of findings from inspections conducted at U.S. nuclear power plants and individual Inspection Reports have been made available at NRC website. An article published in The New York Times highlights some of the key findings included in the NRC inspection report and notes that “something under one-third of the 104 U.S. reactors were found to have some vulnerabilities to extreme emergencies, according to the NRC” but that “all issues have been fixed or put on schedule for correction, and that the safety of the reactors was not compromised.”

Today, Executive Director of Operations of U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Bill Borchardt speaks at Japan Society on the various approaches being taken by NRC for a systematic review of nuclear power plant safety in the U.S. The discussion is moderated by Gal Luft, Executive Director of Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.

--Anu Tulachan

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