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Nuclear power’s future still cloudy as Fukushima passes second anniversary

The entire nuclear industry may well have been permanently displaced by the events of two years ago, and not just in Japan.

The Fukushima power plant on March 11, 2013, two years after it was severely damaged by an earthquake and tsunami.

Monday marked the second anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and also, for the Japanese bereaved in those events, an observance the Buddhists among them call sankaiki.

Years ago I learned that of all the dates in Japanese Buddhism’s complicated calendar of mourning, the two-year anniversary observed as sankaiki has special importance. It marks the time at which souls set wandering by death have reached their destinations.

Nearly 16,000 deaths are now attributed to the events of March 11, 2011, with some 2,600 more still missing and presumed dead. Many thousands made homeless by the destruction still await permanent resettlement.

Despite their grief, despite continued suffering of the most elemental kind, Japanese turned out in large numbers over the weekend to protest resurrection of the country’s nuclear power plants.

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It would seem that throughout its worst crisis since World War II, Japan has been mindful that it narrowly averted a third, sweeping catastrophe in the cascading failures at the Fukushima generating stations. Many remain adamant that this risk, at least, be eliminated from their futures in a way that natural disaster cannot.

Japan has now had three prime ministers in the last 24 months, each described as more pro-nuclear than his predecessor. But only two reactors out of the nation’s 50 are operating today,  and municipal officials can overrule national policy and keep a reactor offline if they deem it unsafe.

Nuclear energy’s importance to Japan’s economy and living standards can scarcely be exaggerated — before Fukushima, nukes provided one-third of electric power in a country that has no domestic coal, no domestic oil and no connection to international power grids.

Yet this entire industry may well have been permanently displaced by the events of two years ago, set to wandering, its destination far from certain.

A global slowdown

And not only in Japan. A survey of the world situation published yesterday in the industry magazine Power: Business and Technology for the Global Generation Industry, quotes the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency saying that nuclear power “looks set to continue to grow more steadily, although more slowly than we expected before the Fukushima Daichi accident.”

About 437 nuclear power reactors are currently operating worldwide. An estimated 67 new reactors are under construction and dozens of others are being proposed. IAEA projections — based on member state data — suggest that number could increase by 80 or 90 reactors over the next 20 years.

However, 60 of those 67 reactors are in just one country — China — and the other leading opportunities appear to be small projects in places like Bangladesh, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Nigeria, Poland and Vietnam.  That’s a far cry from the situation of three years ago when, according to Power,  “dozens of countries were thinking about introducing nuclear power and many of the 30 or so existing users planned to built additional plants.”

Meanwhile, though some countries [including Germany, Italy  and Switzerland]  have considered phasing out nuclear power altogether, others with established nuclear fleets like France, the U.S., and the UK are contemplating politically sensitive lifetime extensions in lieu of costly new builds…. Compared to three years ago, the U.S. has seen a general slowdown in new nuclear plant development, affirmed Jeff Merrifield, a former commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who now serves as senior vice president at the Chicago Bridge & Iron Co. [whose business includes nuclear-plant construction and maintenance.]

A combination of market forces and negative public opinion have canceled projects in Czechoslovakia, Romania, Finland and Russia, according to Bloomberg.

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In the U.S., as noted in an earlier column, the so-called “nuclear renaissance” has foundered not only on post-Fukushima opinion shifts but a series of  construction delays, cost overruns, manufacturing mishaps and other flubs at the five new reactors — first in a quarter-century — that are under construction at three sites in South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. 

New U.S. battle over safety

According to a recent New York Times report, a serious new battle may be looming between some nuke-plant operators and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, whose staff has urged that 31 boiling-water reactors be fitted with new safety equipment:

Ever since the nuclear accident in Japan released radiation into the atmosphere, regulators in the United States have been studying whether to require filters, costing as much as $45 million, on the vents of each of the country’s 31 boiling water reactors.

The filters, which have been recommended by the staff of the regulatory commission, are supposed to prevent radioactive particles from escaping into the atmosphere. They are required in Japan and much of Europe, but the American utilities say they are unnecessary and expensive. to prevent the release of radioactive particles in a Fukushima-type accident.

Finally, the chief argument of nuclear-power proponents — that it’s cheaper than other renewables, and the only realistic alternative to globe-warming coal plants — is being undermined by the U.S. boom in shale gas. Excerpts from a Bloomberg piece published yesterday:

A glut of government-subsidized wind power may help accomplish a goal some environmentalists have sought for decades: kill off U.S. nuclear power plants while reducing reliance on electricity from burning coal.

“Right now, natural gas and wind power are more economic than nuclear power in the Midwestern electricity market,” Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Chicago-based advocate of cleaner energy, said in a phone interview. “It’s a matter of economic competitiveness.”

The impact is greatest in the capacity-glutted Midwest. There, Richmond, Virginia-based Dominion is closing a money-losing reactor and selling coal plants, Exelon warns of shrinking nuclear margins and an Edison International (EIX) merchant coal-plant unit has gone into bankruptcy.

 “It’s a perfect storm,” said Charley Parnell, a Chicago-based spokesman for Edison’s Midwest Generation unit.