Japan nuclear crisis: Will it give nations pause?
Chernobyl and Three Mile Island did not stop nuclear power growth. Will the Japan nuclear crisis at Fukushima delay or end the 'nuclear renaissance'?
As media reports of workers heroically trying to head off multiple meltdowns in the smoking bowels of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi-I nuclear power plant played over scenes of thousands of evacuees fleeing radiation after Japan's powerful earthquake and tsunami, the global nuclear power industry was facing its own public relations meltdown.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Japan's nuclear crisis
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Governments around the world are pushing the nuclear pause button: shutting plants for safety checks and reevaluating energy policy. Even staunch nuclear advocates on Capitol Hill are calling for a timeout on new US nuclear plants in order to learn lessons from Japan's tragedy. And American public support for nuclear development slid a precipitous 10 points – from 57 percent a week before the March 11 quake to 47 percent the week after.
Yet in spite of it all, nuclear industry observers say, Fukushima is unlikely to kill development of nuclear power in a world desperate for a clean – and unlimited – alternative to fossil fuel energy.
"[The Fukushima disaster] is going to slow things down, but not stop them," says Charles Forsberg, head of the nuclear fuel cycle project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass. That, he says, is because there are few alternatives to provide the electricity the world needs.
The Japanese disaster, say experts, probably will slow deployment of new plants by increasing safety regulations, heightening public opposition, and vastly increasing the cost of capital to finance hugely expensive construction.
But, says Spencer Weart, former director of the history center at the American Institute of Physics and author of two books on nuclear power's emergence, "What history suggests is that, unless this crisis causes very widespread damage, the Japanese government, even now, may ultimately feel it has no choice but to go ahead with nuclear power.... [E]ven after Chernobyl, the Russian government went ahead to develop nuclear energy because they feel that when oil runs out they're going to need it."
Indeed, while nuclear energy provides 14 percent of the world's electricity, according to the World Nuclear Association, many nations heavily depend on it: France gets 75 percent of its power from nuclear technology; Japan, 30 percent; and the United States, 20 percent. And nuclear energy figures dramatically in China's soaring economy: It has 13 operating nuclear power plants and 27 under construction, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Ever since the atomic age dawned with the bombing of Hiroshima, nuclear technology has been fraught with promise and peril.