Taking Stock and Looking Ahead
So much is being published for the first anniversary of the Fukushima disaster that I wonder if I can add much that is new or different. Still, since I've been so heavily engaged in the follow-up to the accident over the past year, I can't help but want to summarize my own thoughts. I hope they prove useful to others.
For the communities surrounding the nuclear power plants, this accident was a disaster of monumental proportions. The area was struck by an earthquake and a tsunami, both of nearly unprecedented magnitudes. Thousands were killed, and whole towns were wiped out. On top of that, the accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi caused the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, and devastated the economic prospects of the local farmers and fishermen. For Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which owned the plants, the financial implications are enormous, and there are still questions about the future of the company. And for Japan, the accident had a strong negative impact on the economy, as they struggled over the year with insufficient electricity, higher-priced substitute generation, and the resulting reductions in manufacturing.
Outside Japan, the accident had consequences of a different sort. The fears of the general public about radiation were rekindled. The anti-nuclear community was re-energized in its campaigns against nuclear power. And around the world, the nuclear community began the painstaking process of assessing the causes of the accident and making changes in the rest of the nuclear fleet to prevent a similar disaster.
One year later, I have some concerns about the future, yet my overall impression is not negative. Fukushima may have changed the future of nuclear power, and some of the changes are painful, but other changes are actually very positive.
Here are some of the trends and developments I see:
1. For the most part, the media properly drew a distinction between the deaths from the earthquake and tsunami (around 20,000) and immediate deaths to members of the public from Fukushima itself (0). While questions about possible longer-term fatalities remain, most reporters got the message about the immediate impacts. It is true that a few people have massaged data to show fatalities even in the U.S., but most responsible journalists seem to have recognized that these assertions are not credible.
2. Public opinion, as usual, was very mixed, but I was pleasantly surprised that most surveys show that public opinion has generally held up pretty well. There are variations by country, region, and demographic, and public support has trended somewhat downward. However, considering the amount of attention and coverage given to the accident, I find it a positive sign that public opinion has held up as well as it has. There are probably a number of reasons for this, including continuing concern about global warming.
3. Despite initial predictions that this accident would lead to the demise of nuclear power, only a few countries have taken drastic action to shut down existing reactors. It is notable that most of these countries are in Europe, where they have the distinct advantage of being part of an interconnected grid and being able to make up for the loss of their own nuclear power by purchasing nuclear-generated electricity from other European countries. The situation in Japan is, of course, unique. Most of their plants are now shut down. The general opinion is that many will be started again, although the mechanism for addressing the concerns of the local jurisdictions that must approve restart are uncertain. Most other countries that have nuclear power plants have indicated that they will continue to operate.
4. It is even more impressive that many of the countries that have been considering nuclear power are also continuing to explore the option. While several countries have halted their efforts, that is really no surprise. Most observers, myself included, have long asserted that some of the numbers we had been hearing--upwards of 60 or so countries expressing "interest" in nuclear power--were unrealistic. I fully expected many of these countries to drop out somewhere along the line, although of course, I couldn't have predicted the timing and reason for their decisions.
5. The situation is still fluid, and there could be more shutdowns. The best guess is that the number will be limited, but there are several plants in the US which have been the targets of violent anti-nuclear rhetoric for a long time. Plants needing their licenses renewed are particularly vulnerable. There is no denying that the anti-nuclear people have found new energy and new ammunition. Some of the plants have some characteristics that are superficially similar to the Fukushima plants--especially early BWRs, plants sited along seacoasts, and plants in earthquake zones. I say superficially because the required upgrades for the older plants were different in Japan and the US, and the specific natural hazards vary from site to site, but this case will have to be made convincingly in each relicensing proceeding.
6. The Fukushima accident points to the need for profound changes to the Japanese nuclear regulatory system--and will likely force other regulatory systems around the world to be more independent and transparent. For Japan, this change will be a difficult one, as the current system is endemic to the entire Japanese bureaucracy, but it is an important and necessary reform.
7. The general consensus is that the Fukushima accident will result in safer nuclear power plants around the world. Every country that had nuclear power plants reviewed its requirements in light of the accident and conducted "stress tests" for the plants. Many are requiring some forms of upgrades to address multi-plant vulnerabilities and long-term station blackout. These upgrades will provide improved defense in depth for a variety of possible incidents, not only earthquakes and tsunamis.
8. It is likely that the accident will affect the choice of new reactors in the future, as well as their siting. There was already an expectation that newer reactors would incorporate more passive safety measures. Existing designs such as the AP1000 are a move in that direction, and future reactors, including some of the small modular reactors, should provide additional enhancements to safety.
So on balance, it is clear that the Fukushima accident had profound effects on the nuclear industry worldwide and on the future of nuclear power. However, contrary to early expectations, the effects are not leading to the demise of nuclear power, but rather, to improvements in safety of operating reactors and to designs for future reactors that reflect the lessons learned. This is, perhaps, the silver lining in what has been a very dark cloud.