The Fukushima crisis will slow the growth of nuclear power. Might it reverse it?
FEAR and uncertainty spread faster and farther than any nuclear fallout. To date the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan, laid low by the tsunami of March 11th, seems to have done little if any long-term damage to the environment beyond the plant’s immediate vicinity or to public health. In fits and starts, and with various reverses, the situation at the plant has come closer to being under control.
But the immediate crisis is far from over. The temperature of the three reactors with damaged central cores still fluctuates and water systems for the spent-fuel pools are jury-rigged at best. Contaminated food has been found a disconcertingly long way away, although it seems to be being kept out of the food chain. There are worries about tap water in distant Tokyo.
There will certainly be more durable effects too. Years of clean-up will drag into decades. A permanent exclusion zone could end up stretching beyond the plant’s perimeter. Seriously exposed workers may be at increased risk of cancers for the rest of their lives (which may nevertheless be long). A concern for the long term, like uncertainty and fear, is one of the things that nuclear power invariably brings to discussions of future energy.
To a lot of environmentalists, the priority is to get nuclear power out of those discussions once and for all. Simply put, you can’t trust the stuff. Somewhere, eventually, reactors will get out of control. One did at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979. One did at Chernobyl in 1986. Now three have done so again, and an argument that had seemed to be running short of puff (Chernobyl’s 25th anniversary comes up in April) is revived. Though this disaster has been nothing like as bad as Chernobyl, it is in some ways a lot worse than Three Mile Island—a bit like three Three Mile Islands in a row, with added damage in the spent-fuel stores.
Fukushima Dai-ichi, it is true, was swamped by a natural catastrophe of biblical proportions. But this argument cuts both ways. Nuclear planners clearly did not appreciate how bad things could get on a low-lying coast in a seismic zone; and poor planning is part of the problem. One reason why Japanese confidence in nuclear power had been growing in recent years was that past scandals led to resignations and the prospect of reform among planners, power companies and regulators. Whereas in 2005 only a quarter of people felt nuclear energy was safe, by last year more than 40% did, according to a survey by Japan’s Cabinet Office. Finding sites for new reactors was not proving easy—and old reactors stayed online as a result—but it did not seem impossible.