The recent earthquake in Japan and accidents at two German power plants raise questions on the safety of nuclear energy as a cleaner alternative.
As concern about global warming has swelled in recent years, so has renewed interest in nuclear energy. The main reason: Nuclear plants produce no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases tied to climate change, at least not directly.
New reactor designs make plants safer than those operating in the days of the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island decades ago, advocates say. And there's no group of OPEC countries in unstable parts of the world controlling the main raw material – uranium.
But that was before an earthquake in Japan this week rattled the Kashiwazaki nuclear power plant. The plant's operator "said it had found more than 50 problems at the plant caused by Monday's earthquake," The New York Times reported, adding:
"While most of the problems were minor, the largest included 100 drums of radioactive waste that had fallen over, causing the lids on some of the drums to open, the company said.... The company said that the earthquake also caused a small fire at the plant, the world's largest by amount of electricity produced, and the leakage of 317 gallons of water containing trace levels of radioactive materials into the nearby Sea of Japan."
Meanwhile, accidents at two German nuclear reactors last month prompted German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel to call for the early shutdown of all older reactors there, reports Bloomberg News.
Concern about the safety of Germany's 17 reactors has grown after a fire at Vattenfall's Kruemmel site June 28 and a network fault at its Brunsbuettel plant on the same day. Der Spiegel online adds:
"It took the fire department hours to extinguish the blaze. Even worse, the plant operator's claim that a fire in the transformer had no effect on the reactor itself proved to be a lie.
In short, the incident made clear that nuclear energy is by no means the modern, well-organized, high-tech sector portrayed until recently by politicians and industry advocates. Indeed, the frequency of problems occurring at Germany's aging reactors is on the rise. Just as old cars succumb to rust, nuclear power plants built in the 1970s and '80s are undergoing a natural aging process.
On Wednesday, the chief executive of Vattenfall Europe AG stepped down. Klaus Rauscher was the second manager to depart this week amid mounting criticism for the utility's handling of a fire at a nuclear plant in northern Germany, reports the AP.
"When it comes to security at nuclear power plants, I can only say, that when it comes to the information policy, this really has not been acceptable and therefore my sympathy for the industry is limited," Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
Merkel, a physicist by training, normally favors nuclear power, but the June 28 fire at the Kruemmel plant, near Hamburg, has put the industry in a bad light.
Still, nuclear power has won some powerful allies in the environmental community, writes E Magazine editor Jim Motavalli on the website AlterNet.
He quotes Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense, as saying, "We should all keep an open mind about nuclear power." Jared Diamond, best-selling author of "Collapse," adds, "To deal with our energy problems we need everything available to us, including nuclear power," which, he says, should be "done carefully, like they do in France, where there have been no accidents."
Stewart Brand, who founded The Whole Earth Catalog and Whole Earth Review, concludes, "The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power."
Environmentalists continue to push for more benign sources – wind, biomass, geothermal, and solar, as well as greater conservation – to power the world.
But The Washington Post reports that "Most of the technologies that could reduce greenhouse gases are not only expensive but would need to be embraced on a global scale...." The article continues:
"Many projections for 2030 include as many as 1 million wind turbines worldwide; enough solar panels to cover half of New Jersey, massive reforestation; a major retooling of the global auto industry; as many as 400 power plants fitted with pricey equipment to capture carbon dioxide and store it underground; and, most controversial, perhaps 350 new nuclear plants around the world."
That kind of nuclear expansion in the US seems unlikely. The country hasn't licensed a new plant in more than 30 years, and the devilish political and scientific subject of radioactive waste disposal has yet to be fully addressed.
But that hasn't stopped other countries from pushing ahead. Russia "hopes to export as many as 60 nuclear power plants in the next two decades," The Christian Science Monitor reported this week, including what would be "the first-ever floating atomic power station" at sea.
But noting an estimate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah reports that "at least 1,000 new nuclear plants would be needed worldwide in the next 50 years to make a dent in global warming."