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In My View

Japan’s Nuclear Disaster

Its Impact on Electric Power Generation Worldwide

The Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster on 11 March 2011, 32 years after the Three Mile Island accident in the United States and 25 years after the Chernobyl meltdown, refocused the world’s attention on the potentially catastrophic effects of a nuclear power plant failure. The Japanese disaster revealed the effects of the failure of the electric supply, pumps, valves, and other components of the nuclear plant infrastructure. The six Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant reactors were designed to automatically shut down in case of an earthquake higher than magnitude 6.2 on the Richter scale. This earthquake had an intensity of 9 and, as designed, the safety systems shut down the nuclear fission reactions in the three reactors (out of a total of six) that were in operation. However, the plant design did not have sufficient safeguards to deal with the impact of the tsunami that followed. The disaster mobilized the geopolitical world, nongovernment organizations (NGOs) in general, and environmentalists in particular, as well as national nuclear energy regulatory commissions. The disaster required the ultimate international authority, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to respond rapidly and straightforwardly to the Japanese public and the entire world about the impacts of the nuclear disaster.

One year later, we are embroiled in a new debate about the future of nuclear energy and its place in the world’s energy supply. National authorities worldwide ordered immediate inspections of their nuclear plants’ safety systems. Communication releases followed and opinions were offered about the incident; however, there was no unified conclusion in the various responses.

In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) claimed, “American nuclear power plants are designed to withstand the effects of tsunamis, earthquakes and other risks,” and, later, President Obama proclaimed that new nuclear power plant construction would continue in the future. Russia followed that same path with its announcement that, with stringent safety control measures, it will continue with its plans to double its installed nuclear power capacity by 2020.

In addition, Korea announced that it would authorize the construction of five new nuclear plants. On the other hand, massive demonstrations against nuclear energy in Germany forced Chancellor Merkel to suspend the operation of seven power plants built before 1980 and to discontinue producing nuclear energy after 2022, despite the fact that this decision will oblige Germany to import nuclear-generated energy from France. Similarly, Switzerland has indicated that it will close its three nuclear power plants in 2034. A middle-ground example is China, where Prime Minister Wen Jiabao suspended the licensing of proposed nuclear plants until a safety inspection of the existing and under-construction power stations is completed, although he has declared that China will maintain the nuclear option in its recent five-year plan that includes the construction of an additional 40 GW of nuclear power by 2015.

Soon after the Fukushima accident, the view of the IAEA member states is to be cautious about perceptions of the future of nuclear power. The recent IAEA Ministerial Conference Declaration adopted 25 measures to improve nuclear safety and is a clear sign of the commitment of the agency’s member states to guarantee the implementation of these measures. The member states have recognized the urgency of taking advantage of Fukushima Daiichi lessons and have shown their determination to execute appropriate actions in five major areas:

  • strengthening the IAEA safety standards
  • systematically reviewing safety systems in all nuclear power plants, including the expansion of the IAEA peer review program
  • improving the efficacy of national nuclear enforcement agencies and guaranteeing their independence
  • strengthening emergency preparedness procedures and the world’s consequent response system
  • expanding the Agency’s role in information-gathering and dissemination

If we analyze the IAEA’s general director’s statements during his visit to Japan in July 2011, perhaps nuclear energy development activity does not have as gloomy a future as previously forecast. The agency’s director claims that the number of nuclear reactors will continue to increase throughout the world for the foreseeable future but recognizes that plant construction rates “will not be as high” as originally planned. In addition, he warns about the importance of reinforcing security measures in nuclear power plants.

If changes do occur in the world’s energy supply mix, the International Energy Agency (IEA) claims “a slight change will result in an increase in energy prices, including electricity, and that will put a burden on the efforts to struggle against climate change.” Currently world nuclear power capability is 390 GW and two possible nuclear energy scenarios arise in respect to CO2 emission stabilization efforts. The IEA has developed two scenarios, the first envisions a reduction in the share of the nuclear energy in electricity production from 13% in 2010 to 7% in 2035 with 332 GW of installed power in 2035 (taking into account 69 GW that are currently under construction, 91 GW from new power stations, and the decommissioning of 218 GW of currently installed capacity). The second and more optimistic scenario would maintain the 13% total generation share, with 629 GW of installed power (69 GW under construction, 277 GW in new additions and a loss of only 107 GW in decommissioned power plants, half of the amount decommissioned in the first scenario). In either case, it is projected that the capital costs for the construction of new power plants will be between 5% and 10% greater than was expected before the Fukushima crisis.

The current uncertainty and the potential reduction in the share of nuclear energy in global electricity production means that gas and coal, and to a lesser degree renewable energies, could play a more important role in electricity generation and that world gas consumption could increase 5% as a minimum, together with coal and renewable energies. The chief IEA economist calculates that this increase in the use of fossil energies could result in an increase of 0.5–0.9 of additional gigatons of CO2 by 2035, thus reducing the possibility of limiting the increase of temperature to 2 C by the end of the century. To prevent this increase in CO2 emissions, the IEA estimates that investments in renewable energies would need to be increased to US$1.5 trillion, that is, 10% greater than the investments required in the other case.

In brief, two possible futures have emerged in the current debate: on the one hand, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima and the arguments of more contamination and higher production costs that would cause a nuclear moratorium or a smaller future share in the world energy mix or, on the other hand, a commitment to more and better safety measures, a greater public acceptance of nuclear power and the willingness to shoulder higher costs for nuclear power plant construction. Today, nuclear energy represents 7% of the world’s primary energy consumption and 15% of the world’s electricity production. These percentages are higher in industrialized countries (19% of electric generation in United States, 28% in the European Union, 30% in Japan, and 75% in France.) The nuclear power plants under construction are mainly found outside the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries: in China (28 plants), Russia (11) and Korea (5), while in Latin America, Atucha 2 in Argentina was put into production in September 2011, and Brazil is building its Angra 3 plant, totaling eight nuclear plants in Latin America.

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