Global Nuclear Energy: One Year after Fukushima Daiichi

March 11, 2012 is the one-year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. It devastated the coastal areas of the Tohoku region, killing almost 20,000 people and causing a major crisis at the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi — shaking the world’s confidence in nuclear power.

But, one year later we can see the global response to Fukushima Daiichi was measured and the global nuclear renaissance charges ahead in emerging markets around the world. In Japan, the TEPCO operators and the government struggled —under very alarming conditions — to get control of the three damaged reactors and their spent fuel pools. After considerable improvisation, trial and error, a greater crisis was averted. TEPCO eventually achieved cold shutdown late last year. To date, there have been no lives lost from radiation exposure to the general public, nor to the often selfless, heroic TEPCO employees who were on the front lines managing the crisis. Of course, time will tell if there are complications for those who took the greatest risks.

An arduous, long- term cleanup is now underway, but radiation contamination worries persist. Japan’s nuclear plants, which shut down for annual maintenance and refueling outages, have had to defer their restart pending stress tests. Stress tests have been completed for two Kansai reactors and have been reviewed and approved by the IAEA and Japan’s Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency. The government of Japan is engaged in a historic debate over its energy policy and, specifically, the role nuclear power should play in the national energy mix. Nuclear power has supplied more than 40% of Japan’s electricity and the shutdown has forced the utilities to rely on oil, LNG and coal to help make up the deficit. This puts pressure on world oil and gas prices and complicates compliance with the Kyoto Treaty on global warming.

U.S. Response to the Natural Disaster

In the United States, the Obama Administration reacted with composure to the crisis — responding quickly to the need for information and with assurances that the U.S. reactor fleet was safe and secure. The NRC took immediate steps to assure the safety of the U.S. reactor fleet and its ability to withstand natural disasters. Notwithstanding considerable political strife at the Commissioner level, the NRC responded quickly, ordering stress tests and internalizing lessons learned. On February 9, 2012, the NRC approved two new reactors for Georgia Power’s Vogtle plant. They were the first NRC licenses issued in more than 30 years.

A view of the Vogtle 4 nuclear island for the new third-generation plant and the Vogtle 1 and 2 operating reactors. Photo Credit: Southern Company, Inc.

The issuance of new licenses were once thought of as the starting gun for an American Nuclear Renaissance, and some observers now assume that Fukushima Daiichi dealt it a fatal blow. But upon closer inspection, this is not the case. The slowdown in new build is more likely the result of a new calculus involving high costs of construction; expensive premiums on federal loan guarantees; leveling electricity demand; and inexpensive, abundant shale gas which provides a cheaper (for now) source of fuel for base load capacity.

The World Reacts

Around the world, the reaction to Fukushima Daiichi was mixed. In Germany, it was announced that the industrial juggernaut would close its remaining nuclear power plants by 2020. Italy and Spain soon followed with some fanfare, declaring they were shelving plans to build new reactors. The abandonment of nuclear power only went so far as each nation would simply rely more heavily on electricity from French reactors.  Meanwhile, Lithuania, Finland, Poland and Turkey continued their nuclear build plans to provide indigenous, secure, emission-free, base load capacity. In Asia, the global nuclear renaissance continued unabated. China is currently building 25 reactors and has plans to start construction on at least 10 more in the next two years. More than 60 more are proposed. India has three reactors under construction, with nearly 40 more planned. Vietnam plans to begin construction on its first four reactors within the next several years. In the Middle East, which is dependent on fossil fuels, many countries are courting bids for new nuclear plants. Belarus also invited Japan to considering building nuclear plants in its country.

While much remains to be learned about Fukushima Daiichi and the cleanup effort is not without serious challenges, complication and risk, one part of the legacy is obvious — governments around the world are working harder to ensure greater safety and security for the global nuclear reactor fleet. New reactor designs eliminate much of the risk posed by natural disasters and the nuclear build out is gaining momentum in emerging markets worldwide.

The Forum on Energy has asked a number of informed observers and participants in Japan and the United States to comment on the state-of-play one year after Fukushima Daiichi. Their collective statements will provide a varied and interesting global assessment of where things stand one year later.

— by Scott Campbell, Director, Howard Baker Forum

RELATED: Daniel B. Poneman, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy; Masakazu Toyoda, CEO & Chairman of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan; and other experts share their thoughts and reflections one year after Fukushima.