Lentis/Nuclear Meltdown: Is Nuclear Energy Socially Viable Following the 2011 Japanese Earthquake?

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On March 11, 2011, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake struck just off the coast of Japan. The tsunami wave, which was over 130 feet tall at its peak, compounded the destruction caused by the earthquake. 15,839 residents were killed, and thousands more were left injured or homeless[1]. The earthquake also caused instability and potential meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactors.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility is a compound of six reactors owned and maintained by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). It is located only 150 miles outside of Tokyo, Japan, making the potential of a nuclear meltdown even more threatening. A fifteen meter tall tsunami wave caused by the earthquake struck the Fukushima power plant flooding all six reactors and causing a series of operational failures. Following the tsunami, TEPCO workers struggled to repair the nuclear reactors as the water flooding the plants contained radioactive waste in toxic concentrations. Unable to repair the reactors, nuclear meltdown occurred as the fuel rods were exposed, which released nuclear particles into the air. The International Nuclear Event Scales (INES) rated the Fukushima nuclear disaster a seven. A rating of seven is the worst possible rating as it is indicative of widespread contamination that is likely to have long term effects on both human health and the environment.

Technical Success[edit]

The ability to generate power through a self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction was demonstrated when the world's first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, came on-line at the University of Chicago in 1942. Since 1942, the technology has continued to improve. In 1956, Calder Hall came on-line in England as the first commercial nuclear power plant. The number of nuclear reactors continued to grow rapidly until the first nuclear reactor scare in 1979. In Pennsylvania, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor had a meltdown of the nuclear core in one of its units. While the meltdown did not release significant levels of radioactive material into the atmosphere, this incident did spark citizen concern over the possibility of a more dangerous nuclear incident. In 1986, a much worse nuclear disaster struck in the Ukraine. The nuclear power plant Chernobyl experienced a complete loss of containment, causing approximately one million premature deaths because of the nuclear particles released into the air[2]. The disaster at Chernobyl is considered the worst nuclear power incident in world history and is ranked a seven on the INES. Figure 1 illustrates how following the Chernobyl incident many nations halted the construction of new nuclear power plants, although they continued to rely on those already constructed[3].

Figure 1: History of the use of nuclear power (top) and the number of active nuclear power plants (bottom).

In addition to safety considerations, cost is a key factor in a government's decision to build and use a nuclear power plant. As illustrated in Figure 2, a series of studies from 2004 to 2008 show that nuclear power is a more expensive form of energy than coal or gas.

Figure 2: Cost comparison of nuclear, coal, and gas power.

However, these studies did not account for the additional costs of energy dependence, pollution, or health impacts as a result of each energy source. While nuclear power is not as cheap as coal or oil, it is more affordable than many other alternative and sustainable energy options. Nuclear energy costs about $0.04 per kWh, which is more affordable than wind ($0.08), natural gas ($0.11), or solar ($0.22) energy. [4]

Technological developments in nuclear power are helping to reduce the costs of energy generation as well as decrease safety concerns. Prior to the Fukushima Meltdown there were 436 nuclear power plants operating worldwide, which were responsible for supplying approximately 15% of the world's electricity [5]. Many of these plants were built over 20 years ago, with outdated containment technologies. The designs for new nuclear power plants, known as Generation III and the hypothetical Generation IV designs, have the potential to address many of the safety hazards due to old plants and poor designs[6]. However, nuclear power has never been defined by its technical capabilities alone. Japan's earthquake drew attention to the potential hazards of a nuclear meltdown and caused many nations to evaluate their positions on nuclear power.

Environmental Opinion[edit]

Nuclear energy continues to be subject to debate among environmental groups. Although nuclear energy is efficient and does not produce greenhouse gases, it is not truly renewable and remains a potential safety hazard.

Greenpeace opposes all further development of nuclear energy because of the potential risks that it poses to the environment. They cite the lack of procedure for dealing with nuclear waste as a major issue and think that money spent on developing nuclear energy would not have as great an impact on the environment as investing in truly renewable sources. According to MIT, 1000 new nuclear reactors would have to be built to have a significant impact on global warming which will not happen with the current growth of 4% in the nuclear energy sector [7]. The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) asserts that every dollar spent on nuclear energy is a dollar not spent on renewable energy sources[8]

Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy (EFN) describes nuclear energy as "The only clean, safe energy source capable of ensuring the continuation of our industrial civilization while protecting the environment" [9]. Nuclear energy uses less construction materials per kWh than wind and solar making it greener to build. As vehicles become more dependent on electricity, nuclear energy is the only available energy source that will be able to supply the additional power required without emitting greenhouse gasses. Because nuclear energy is the only massively available energy source, EFN supports the rapid deployment of nuclear reactors to move away from dependency on fossil fuels. EFN also cites the Three Mile Island incident as a success story for the safety of nuclear energy, because, despite a meltdown, the safety equipment at the reactor contained almost all of the radiation and there were no serious injuries or deaths.

Fallout Spreads Across Europe[edit]

In 2009, Germany produced over 125 billion kilowatt hours of power at its nuclear plants [10]. Just two years later Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has pledged to phase out all dependence on nuclear energy by 2022 [11]. This will require decommissioning all seventeen of the country's nuclear plants and finding alternative energy sources to power the nation. This abrupt change in nuclear policy is a direct result of the Japanese nuclear scare[12]. As described by German journalist, Elmer Jehn, "Since Japan, every sensible person knows that nuclear energy is dead" [13]. While there has always been some opposition in Germany to nuclear power, the voice of the opposition has grown stronger since the Fukushima disaster. On March 25th, over 200,000 people gathered in an anti-nuclear protest[14].

As Germany scales down its nuclear programs, Switzerland follow its example, also pledging to reevaluate and limit the nation's use of nuclear reactors[15]. Britain, France, and Poland have not followed the actions of Germany, and plan to continue or even expand their use of nuclear power[16][17][18]. In Great Britain, public support for nuclear power has grown since Fukushima with support over the last year rising by 3%. In 2010, 38% of Britons believed the benefits of nuclear power were greater than the risks, and in August of 2011, this number had grown to 41% [19]. Across Europe there is little consensus about whether nuclear power presents a clean sustainable alternative to coal and oil, or a deadly threat.

United States of America[edit]

The battle over nuclear energy continues in the United States, arguments nearly unchanged by the nuclear disaster in Japan [20]. Groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund argue that the earthquake illustrates the need for sound regulations and building codes, but should not be a deterrent from building new nuclear plants so long as companies and regulators take the right precautions [21]. Others argue on the grounds of America's need to sustain our competitive advantage. As India and China continue to pursue alternative energy, proponents believe that we cannot fall behind.

Public opinion about nuclear energy in the United States has been on an upward trend since the 1980's. The most recent poll conducted by the Nuclear Energy Institute in June 2010, found that 74% of Americans favor nuclear energy. The NEI also found that those who strongly favor nuclear energy outnumber those who strongly oppose it about three to one [22]. However, after the Japanese earthquake in 2011, public opinion has started to swing back. In polling done one week after the earthquake, CNN found that only 54% of Americans favored nuclear power as an energy source. Although two-thirds of Americans oppose building new nuclear reactors (a number that was unchanged by the earthquake) 60% of Americans oppose reducing dependency on nuclear energy if it would result in higher electric costs [23].

Worldwide Reactions[edit]

After the Fukushima disaster, international governments and peoples have mixed feelings about the future of nuclear energy. In a international poll of twelve countries that currently use nuclear reactors there is mixed opinion about the nuclear energy. Four of the twelve countries, Germany, Mexico, Spain and Russia, support shutting down nuclear reactors, while seven, China, Pakistan, US, UK, Brazil, France, Japan, favor continued support of nuclear energy. India was evenly split[24]. China and India plan to add a combined 80 new nuclear reactors over the next two decades. The countries slowed construction to ensure they met safety standards, but were generally unfazed by the disaster [25]. In addition, Bangladesh has made significant progress in opening its first nuclear power plant and has undergone an international review by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The government of Bangladesh has been working with Russia to purchase the components for the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant project [26]. Despite the Russian government's interest in selling nuclear technologies, the 43% of Russians now favor the immediate shut down of all nuclear reactors. This number has more than doubled since 2005.

Generalizable Lesson[edit]

The success or failure of nuclear energy depends on a variety of factors including political climate, public opinions, natural resources, and energy needs. Each country makes its own decisions about nuclear power and the response it makes to a nuclear disaster. Following the meltdown of the Fukushima reactor, many countries began to reevaluate their nuclear policies. Though most would view any disaster as a deterrent, most country's nuclear programs remain unchanged with some continuing to grow.

An additional factor that must be considered is the small number of deaths associated with the Fukushima disaster. As only two deaths were reported to be caused by the nuclear meltdown, the perceived safety of nuclear energy will likely not be diminished as much as a larger scale disaster such as Chernobyl.

Germany's reaction, however, shows that a single event can be a tipping point in nuclear policy. As public support for nuclear energy waned, Chancellor Merkel used the Fukushima disaster to spark her move to decommission all of Germany's reactors by 2022.

The Russian government continues to support nuclear energy despite a doubling in opposition over the last five years. The support comes from the governments goal to reduce the nations dependency on natural gas, though it is the worlds largest natural gas exporter. Russia also has the world's second largest coal reserves and is the largest non OPEC producer of petroleum. Following the Fukushima disaster, Russia continues plans to build 28 new reactors, and will perform tests on all current reactors to determine their ability to withstand a major earthquake. The response in Russia is an example of the government acting against the will of its people despite sitting on abundant energy resources[27].

China and India continue to rapidly expand their nuclear programs because of the high projections for energy consumption that they face. Both countries believe that nuclear energy is the only way to cheaply power their nations in the coming years, though have reevaluated the safety requirements following the Fukushima disaster.

Any event, large or small, can have an effect on policy, but it is not solely the event that determines the effect. Each country's reaction can be seen as the country acting in its own interests. As show, a major event can cause a rapid change in a country's policies or it can simply result in slight reevaluation of policy and procedure. This effect is similar to that of the response to the rise of graffiti. Some localities simply tried to ban the sale of spray paint, while others embraced graffiti as an art form and opened up walls for the artists to paint. Both measures attempted to solve the problem of vandalism, just like any policy made after the Fukushima disaster will try to solve the problem of safely providing energy to a nation.


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