Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Fukushima Nuclear Accident:

Some Observations

Along with the rest of the world, I have spent the past week watching in horror the incredible sequence of events unfold in Japan--a record-breaking earthquake followed by a tsunami, together triggering a series of malfunctions in several units of the Fukushima nuclear power station.

My interest in what is happening in Japan is both professional and personal. On the professional side, I am of course interested in what went wrong at the power plant and why, and on how we can learn from this experience. On the personal side, I have lived in Japan and have many friends there, so I am especially saddened by the multiple tragedies they have suffered. I have even visited Sendai, the city hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami. It is difficult to imagine the pain so many people in that area are now experiencing, and my thoughts are with them as they face the challenges of rebuilding their shattered lives.

I have deliberately not written anything until now, while I tried to sort through my feelings and to figure out what was really happening. While I still don't feel that I can address the many technical issues, I can comment on some of what I have observed over the past week, and what it might mean in the months and years ahead.

First, it is truly inspirational to think of the bravery of those who have, and still are, been fighting to get the power station under control, all the while knowing they face possible death or disease.

Second, it was a little surprising to me how much misinformation circulated about the unfolding events. It seems that our advanced communications technology spreads disinformation ever more efficiently.

Third, public concerns raised by the accident were only heightened when overly optimistic predictions made by some experts repeatedly proved wrong. While well-meaning, when reassuring predictions turn out to be false, they tend to undermine the credibility of the entire profession.

Fourth, it was somewhat disappointing to observe how some traditional nuclear opponents used the accident as a chance to further their agendas, claiming it as "proof" of their claims about nuclear power, regardless of whether the plant or the circumstances were really relevant to their viewpoints at all.

Finally, it has been heartening to me to see a number of public figures, both in the US and abroad, speak up to say that nuclear power is still needed.

It will be months, and maybe even years before we know the whole story about this accident and assimilate the lessons learned from it. In the meantime, we are already seeing some of the consequences of the event. Some countries have announced that they are slowing or suspending plans to build more plants. Others are likely to follow. The reviews almost all countries are doing of their existing plants may lead to some needs for changes, and perhaps even to a few early plant closures.

Nevertheless, from what we can see today, nuclear power will continue to play an important role in meeting needs for clean energy around the globe. While we will certainly face some challenges, most existing nuclear power plants should be able to continue to operate, and many of the plans for new plants will also continue to move forward.


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