How does Japan’s nuclear disaster interconnect with wider global issues of energy security and environmental sustainability?
With fossil fuels becoming more economically and environmentally costly, a worldwide ‘nuclear renaissance’ had, until recently, seemed certain. Since the tsunami struck Japan in March 2011, however, the risks nuclear power brings have been under greater scrutiny.
This article examines the nuclear disaster that struck Japan and the response of the Japanese government and citizens.
The wider, global response to the accident is also analysed, focusing on the mixed reaction of major nuclear power users that include Germany, China, France and the UK. With countries now re-assessing and in some cases even rejecting nuclear power as part of their long-term energy mix, we investigate whether low-carbon energy security can be achieved without it.
Can the world afford to retreat on the use of nuclear power and still have a chance of tackling major 21st century challenges such as climate change and poverty alleviation?
Japan’s nuclear disaster
A global re-examination of the costs and benefits of nuclear power
When a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit Japan on 11 March 2011, it cut power supplies to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (a site for six boiling water reactors since 1971). A major nuclear disaster followed, leading Japan’s government to abandon a previous target for nuclear electricity generation to meet 50% of its needs by 2030. Can Japan find alternative sources?
The nuclear disaster was triggered by the combination of a major earthquake and the tsunami that followed. The tsunami wiped out the backup diesel generators that were meant to kick in after the earthquake cut electricity supplies. Without any power source whatsoever, cooling water could not be pumped around the reactor cores. This led to over-heating (which is the greatest risk associated with nuclear power generation).
The lack of water meant that uranium fuel rods became exposed to the air and, as a result, over-heated. This produced hydrogen gas which combined explosively with oxygen in the power station’s outer containment building, blowing the building apart.
Up to 630,000 terabequerals of radioactive materials were released (around 10% of the 1986 Chernobyl discharge).
In an effort to keep the reactor cores cool, emergency teams flooded them with seawater. However, this did not stop one of the reactors from overheating and entering a state of partial meltdown soon after the tsunami struck. Fuel melted through the bottom of the containment vessel housing this reactor, creating a hole through which 3,000 tonnes of contaminated water leaked down into the basement of the building. From there, some of the water subsequently leaked into local groundwater reservoirs and the surrounding sea. Soon after, radioactive caesium-137 had contaminated local seafood supplies. It is projected to reach the west coast of the USA by 2016.
Source: Japan Echo 20 May 2011; BBC News 25 July 2011
The aftermath of the explosions
By July, emergency workers had managed to establish a non-polluting stable cooling system and a final "cold shutdown" of the plant is expected during 2012. Luckily, no-one died directly as a result of the nuclear crisis (although the earthquake and tsunami flattened settlements along Japan's north-eastern coast, bringing at least 20,000 deaths). But the nuclear disaster had far-reaching social and economic impacts. As the timeline shows, thousands of people are still unable to return to their homes. Risk analysts say the final bill for compensation for those affected by the nuclear disaster could top US$100 billion, with the total cost of the earthquake and tsunami for Japan expected to reach US$300 billion.
Japan‘s politicians are questioning how the country’s energy supplies should now be managed:
The disaster has led to an overhaul of Japan’s nuclear power industry and a complete re-appraisal of risk. Since the disaster, debate has raged in Japan about nuclear safety issues.
The Japanese government has officially abandoned a previous target for nuclear plants to account for half of total electricity generation by 2030. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has even floated the idea of a "nuclear-free" Japan.
A full safety review has been ordered and greater emphasis is being placed on developing renewable forms of energy.
By July 2011, only 19 of 54 reactors remained in service as safety checks continued. Local authorities in Japan have the power to leave local reactors switched off. The Financial Times (12 July 2011) suggested that "if local authorities cannot be convinced to let them restart, Japan could find itself with no working nuclear plants within less than a year". Notably, Japan's ageing Hamaoka nuclear plant (200 km south-west of Tokyo) was forced into a state of cold shutdown. The plant is located near a tectonic fault-line and Prime Minister Kan called for its urgent closure following the Fukushima disaster.
Large industrial energy users in Tokyo such as electronics TNC Panasonic have had to adapt to the imposition of a 15% peak-time electricity consumption cut on their business. However, despite the accident, many Japanese people still support the use of nuclear power as the only large-scale way of easing Japan’s reliance on imported fossil fuels.
Despite recent events in Japan, many experts believe that global reliance on nuclear power will continue to grow. China and India have ambitious power programmes and few alternative options exist to help them meet rises in demand on the scale soon predicted. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), recently asserted: "It is certain that the number of nuclear reactors will increase, even if not as quickly as before" (BBC News, 25 May 2011). Will this really be the case?
Nuclear power provides 14% of global energy but its future share is now in question. There are 440 nuclear plant around the world. 60 more are under construction and around another 500 are in the early planning stages or have been proposed (Financial Times, 07 June 2011).
Source: Financial Times, 17 March 2011
The environmental impacts of nuclear power present society with something of a "zero-infinity" dilemma. Under normal operation, the carbon footprint of a nuclear power station is negligible compared with fossil fuel use. However, the potential for a catastrophic disaster, although very small, makes nuclear power a controversial method of energy production.
Nuclear power derives from uranium, a naturally occurring radioactive element. To generate power, the nucleus of a Uranium atom is split (this is called fission) into two smaller atoms plus one free neutron. The free neutron triggers the fission of other atoms, creating a chain reaction that releases high amounts of energy. This is the heat source turns water into steam, which drives a turbine and ultimately generates electricity.
Source: Financial Times, 05 April 2011
Although this is ‘clean’ energy compared with coal or gas burning, there are major environmental risks:
Waste from the power plants remains toxic for many centuries and there is no safe way to store it permanently or dispose of it. Today, tens of thousands of tonnes of waste remains stored in temporary facilities. The lack of safe, secure disposal facilities has long been seen as an unacceptable part of the nuclear equation. The USA has 62,500 metric tonnes of waste stored at dozens of locations; another 2,300 metric tonnes is added annually. Some is stored in pools of water, some in steel containers ("dry cask storage") and some underground in New Mexico. But even in the deepest, geologically stable underground stores, there can still be a possibility of groundwater seepage via joints in the rock. This might allow contaminated water to one day enter the hydrological cycle and food chains.
There always remains some risk of an accident such as that which affected Chernobyl (Ukraine), where a nuclear plant exploded in 1986. Many people whose parents were exposed to radiation have been born with disabilities. The cost of the disaster to Ukraine has been estimated at around $120 billion.
Transporting nuclear fuel and nuclear waste introduces further risk.
Large amounts of water are used to cool nuclear plants, which has sometimes led to increased levels of radioactivity in local water bodies or off-shore waters.
Despite the known risks, many countries have been enthusiastic adopters of nuclear energy, notably France, Japan and, more recently, China and India. There are several reasons for this.
The carbon argument The world most likely faces higher energy costs, more carbon emissions and greater energy supply uncertainty if it turns its back on nuclear power. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) previously predicted nuclear would generate 14% of all electricity by 2035 but this figure is under revision in the light of some countries reversing policy on nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster (Guardian 17 June 2011). "If nuclear is not 14%, but say 10%, then it means more gas and more coal as well as more renewables," one expert told New Statesman (06 June 2011). "It will cost much more, be less sustainable and there will be less security. These are the consequences of lower nuclear." To prevent a disastrous 2°C rise in global temperatures, solar, wind and wave power may yet need to work alongside, rather than instead of, nuclear energy.
Lack of alternatives For some countries, lack or available alternatives leaves few options if energy security concerns are to be met. Supporters of nuclear power say that if there was a more reliable and affordable option, countries like Japan and France would have adopted it already. More countries may come to take this view as the peak oil moment approaches.
Safety improvements The latest reactor designs promise greater safety. New Generation III+ reactors incorporate "passive" safety features, allowing flowing water to keep cooling the reactor fuel even if power is lost. The AP1000 model uses a reservoir of water above the reactor core which relies on gravity for circulation, for instance (Financial Times, 15 March 2011). The safety issues surrounding nuclear waste are also being addressed. Sweden has announced plans to build the world’s first permanent repository of high-level nuclear waste. A site has been chosen where it is believed radioactive material can go undisturbed for 100,000 years (by which point it will be safe). The planned repository will sit 500 metres below the surface in granite bedrock that is 1.9 billion years old and at negligible risk of seismic activity (Financial Times, 05 April 2011).
A global round-up of recent changes in nuclear policy
As a result if the Fukushima incident, all nuclear nations have reviewed the risks they face. Some have concluded that the risks are worse than they had believed and have announced plans to now abandon nuclear energy altogether. Others have said they will not change their energy mix. The table below details some recent developments for the world’s main nuclear power users.
India is still planning a major nuclear expansion, but with a heightened safety review. India’s Nuclear Power Corporation recently contracted French TNC Areva to build six 1,650 MW nuclear reactors at Jaitapur, a coastal site south of Mumbai, despite a medium-level risk of seismic activity. 400 million Indians have no access to electricity and the government wants to double electricity generation in the next couple of years (Financial Times 11 May 2011).
The government has decided to close the eight oldest of the country’s 17 nuclear plants by the end of 2011. The remaining nine will close by 2022. Germany expects nuclear power, which produces 23% of national electricity, to be replaced by gas and renewable energy, whose proportion of electricity production is meant to double to 35% by 2020. Prior to the disaster at Fukushima, a nuclear phase-out had been planned for 2036 but all nuclear plants will now be closed down sooner (Financial Times 07 June 2011). Not everyone thinks Germany will meet its changed energy targets. For instance, the entire national grid will need to be upgraded in order to help pipe electricity from renewable energy sources in windy northern and eastern Germany towards the big industrial markets of the south and west. This will not be easy (Financial Times, 04 July 2011).
There has been heated public debate since the Fukushima accident. 58 nuclear reactors currently generate 78% of France’s electricity, making it the world’s most nuclear-dependent country. This is a legacy of France’s determination to gain independent energy security in the 1970s. For 40 years, the vast majority of French people have lived within 300 km of a nuclear reactor. Recently, France’s Socialist Party called for a total nuclear exit, like Germany, but given French dependence on nuclear power this seems an unlikely path to follow.
China accounts for 44% of all reactors currently under construction worldwide. All work was immediately suspended after Fukushima while improved safety measures were put in place. However, there has been no announcement to actually reduce overall nuclear targets though. This is because the world’s largest user of energy, accountable for 20% of global consumption, still must take giant steps to meet its growing energy security requirements.
A rapid safety re-assessment was carried out for the USA’s 65 nuclear reactors. Twelve were identified as needing improved safety. Safety fears now dominate the American media and it is unlikely there will now be any sudden expansion of new reactors.
South Korea still plans to double its reactors from 21 to 42 by 2030. Five pressurised water reactors are currently under construction.
In 2008, the government committed itself to construction of a new generation of nuclear reactors, saying that the low-carbon case for greater uptake of nuclear power was "compelling" (nuclear power is also seen as playing a crucial role in helping the UK to avoid becoming reliant on oil and gas imports). However, the companies building the new nuclear plants are now being asked to review their site plans and emergency procedures. No big changes in design are expected, but 26 recommendations have been implemented post-Fukushima. Amongst these are requirements to review flood vulnerability, provide a failsafe back-up electricity supply on site and ensure sufficient ventilation to prevent the explosive build-up of gas in the event of plant failure. EDF Energy will be installing the first new reactor at Hinkley Point in Somerset (Financial Times, 19 May 2011).
Switzerland has announced it will decommission its five nuclear power plants by 2034. They generate 40% of its energy; the current plan is to introduce greater efficiency and more renewables.
Italy has abandoned plans to re-establish a nuclear energy industry, previously banned after Chernobyl in 1987 following a referendum (New Statesman, 06 June 2011). Italy’s economy is currently in a poor state and future plans may yet change.
Some countries have opted for a "business as usual" approach to nuclear power; others have decided to drop it altogether. Several key factors have helped shape how local responses to the Fukushima accident differ from place to place. These are:
Need and the lack of realistic alternatives Emerging economies urgently need to increase their energy supplies. The human race is becoming "powered up" at an incredible pace. Having recently lifted 400 million people out of poverty, it is easy to see why China has proposed the building of over 160 new nuclear power stations. The real future of nuclear power (and thus of global carbon emissions) is likely to be fought out in China, India and Russia. They account for 80% of prospective new atomic power plant projects.
Public opinion In countries where public opinion is strongly anti-nuclear, unpopular governments are unlikely to promote any nuclear expansion in the current climate of mistrust.
Risk perception Countries where there is a major tectonic hazard risk may need to think carefully about any nuclear expansion, after the recent disaster in Japan. Earthquake-prone Italy has quite notably steered clear of nuclear power in recent years. However, of the 400 reactors that operate worldwide, 90 are sited in areas of significant seismic activity (Financial Times, 15 March 2011).
Japan Echo, 20 May 2011 "Fukushima: the first forty days"
BBC News, 25 July 2011 "Japan crisis will not end nuclear age"
Financial Times, 12 July 2011 "Nuclear retreat sparks Japanese power cut fears"
Financial Times, 07 June 2011 "Berlin’s nuclear exit"
Financial Times, 17 March 2011 "Too hot to handle"
Financial Times, 05 April 2011 "Sweden attempts to resolve nuclear waste conundrum"
Guardian, 17 June 2011 "IEA says shift from nuclear will be costly"
New Statesman, 06 June 2011 "For the sake of the planet"
Financial Times, 15 March 2011 "Meltdown battle revives reactor safety concern"
Guardian, 02 July 2011 "Has the green movement lost its way?"
Financial Times, 11 May 2011 "Indian villagers fight to fend off ‘nuclear monster’"
Financial Times, 04 July 2011 "Betting the wind farm"
Financial Times, 19 May 2011 "Fukushima spurs scrutiny of plant design"
Financial Times, 24 March 2011 "French nuclear love affair starts to cool"
Financial Times, 09 June 2011 "Nuclear fears spur Berlin to bet big on renewables"
BBC News, 17 May 2011 ‘"Japan nuclear crisis: Fukushima shutdown for January"
Written by Dr Simon Oakes, a Geography Chief Examiner who teaches at Bancroft’s School, Essex.
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