It remains to be seen what impact this will have on the future of nuclear power in Japan, and the future of nuclear power elsewhere. China will likely continue its ambitious plans, for example. But if I had to guess, I would say public and investor perceptions of the safety of nuclear power around the world has been dealt a serious and lasting blow.
This did not take place in a developing country that had just built its first plant and hadn’t had time to develop a proper safety culture. This took place in Japan, one of the wealthiest, most experienced, and most safety-conscious nations on earth (though one that also has had a history of safety issues that were covered up and not reported to the regulator in a timely way).
Admittedly these were old reactor designs and the new reactors people are considering building today would be safer – but whether that logic will address the public perception remains to be seen. My guess is that while we will still see some growth of nuclear power in some places, the prospects for growth on the scale required for nuclear to be even a noticeable part of the answer to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions have been substantially reduced.
Matthew Bunn is an associate professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is also co-principal investigator at the Managing the Atom Project in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and co-principal investigator of the Energy Research, Development, Demonstration, and Deployment Policy Project, both at the Kennedy School. His research interests include nuclear theft and terrorism; nuclear proliferation and measures to control it; the future of nuclear energy and its fuel cycle; and policies to promote innovation in energy technologies. Before joining the Kennedy School in 1997, he served for three years as an adviser in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House.