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'?
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On the other hand, Sweden, with 10 reactors, reiterated its conviction not to scrap its reactors. And in Indonesia, where four reactors are planned not far from active faults, officials said the plans would proceed.
In France, with one of the world's most ambitious nuclear programs, parliamentary leaders demanded a study on "the future of the French nuclear industry."
But, says Dr. Weart, "France and Japan have no oil and not much coal. They are going to go ahead because they have to."
Indeed, France and Japan are heavily reliant on nuclear power because of strategic energy decisions caused by conflicts over oil, says Dr. Forsberg, of MIT. A major reason the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he says, was to protect the supply of oil in Asia. France, similarly, warred with its colony Algeria in the 1950s and 1960s mainly to protect access to oil and gas in North Africa.
"People don't appreciate that some of [other countries' commitment to nuclear power] is based on major historical factors," he says.
Meanwhile, notes Weart, nations such as China "have centralized governments that tend to be able to go ahead without too many legal or regulatory impediments and without much concern for public opinion."
Perhaps the biggest hurdles to new nuclear power generation will not come from politicians, regulators, or a frightened public. Wall Street has refused to underwrite loans for any nuclear plant unless it has 100 percent of the loan guaranteed by the federal government. The Fukushima disaster means that the cost of borrowing money for such plants will be even higher, raising the question: Will nuclear power plants – at $10 billion per reactor – be too expensive to build?
Some observers are adamant that it will be prohibitive in the US, arguing that low natural gas costs that make gas turbines a cheap option, excess generating capacity, and very low growth in electricity demand will make nuclear too costly.
"Some in Congress talk about doubling or tripling the size of the existing nuclear fleet to face our energy challenges," Jon Rowe, president of Exelon, one of the nation's biggest utilities which owns several nuclear plants, said in a speech this month.
"Since these plants are not currently economic at today's low natural gas prices, the government would have to spend $300 to 600 billion to get these plants built," he says. "Congress should not expand the nuclear loan guarantee program beyond the current $18.5 billion already allocated" or extend tax credits.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement from one of the most likely buyers of a new nuclear plant. Others point to poor economic conditions and weakening public support as major hurdles to new plant construction.
"What this means is that the notion that we were about to launch a new era of nuclear plant construction will probably have to be reexamined," says Mr. Holstein, senior strategic director for the EDF. "That's not to say there isn't a future for nuclear in the United States. But their job just got a lot tougher."