* Impact on industry depends on severity of any Japan leak
* Industry says quake should not lead to safety hazard
* Nuclear has enjoyed rebirth after 1970s, 80s disasters
* Greens say world can power itself with renewable energy
By Gerard Wynn and Bernie Woodall
LONDON/DETROIT, March 11 (Reuters) - The growing risk of a
significant radiation leak at two Japanese nuclear power plants
following Friday's earthquake and tsunami threatens to hurt an
industry that has enjoyed a rebirth since the Three Mile Island
accident in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
On Friday, nuclear power advocates and environmentalists
staked out familiar ground over the incident. But a wider
public debate may be ignited if a major radiation leak occurs
in Japan, said Paul Patterson, an energy analyst with
consultants Glenrock Associates in New York.
That debate has been largely muted since the 1980s when
rock concerts were held to galvanize opposition to nuclear
power after the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania and
the popular movie "The China Syndrome," that raised awareness
of the dangers of a nuclear reactor meltdown.
"The severity of what happens is what is important,"
Patterson said of the impact of the Japanese incident.
If there is a substantial radioactive release, there could
even be questions about whether it could travel on the Pacific
jet stream to the U.S. West Coast.
"It is serious and it could lead to a meltdown," said Mark
Hibbs, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace. "And what we're seeing, barring any
information from the Japanese that they have it under control,
is that we're headed in that direction."
But Naoto Sekimura of the University of Tokyo, said that a
major radioactive disaster was not likely.
An 8.9-magnitude earthquake centered in northern Japan
triggered a series of events at two Tokyo Electric Power Co
plants that created conditions for a radioactive leak
because there wasn't electric power to circulate cooling water
over superheated uranium fuel rods.
The two TEPCO plants, the Daiichi plant and the Daini plant
are around 40 miles (60 kilometers) from the epicenter of the
earthquake that led to a tsunami and probably killed more than
Nuclear industry advocates on Friday were saying that the
ability of the nuclear reactors in Japan to largely withstand
the power of the earthquake shows how safe nuclear power is.
But that was before a series of scary announcements from
TEPCO that it had lost the ability to control pressure at
several reactors and that it was having trouble with a valve
that would allow reactor pressure to be eased.
Thousands of residents were evacuated from the immediate
area of the Fukushima plants, about 150 miles 240 km (240
kilometers) north of Tokyo.
Industry experts said the precautions taken at Fukushima
showed that enhanced security at nuclear power plants should
prevent any disaster. But green groups said the threatened leak
showed that the risks were still too high.
"I wouldn't expect there to be a radiation emergency
ultimately, they may have something to fix but it's a
precaution more than anything else," said Sue Ion, former chief
technology officer at British Nuclear Fuels, after Japan
declared an atomic power emergency.
Altogether, some 11 Japanese reactors shut down after the
Successive layers of security should prevent any leak of
radiation, said Jeremy Gordon, an analyst at the World Nuclear
Association based in London.
NUCLEAR POWER GAINS RECENTLY
"The reactor designs that are up for consideration today
are generation three where the safety systems operate at an
even higher level," said WNA analyst Jonathan Cobb.
But environmental groups said the threat of a radiation
leak underscored the general risks from atomic energy.
"We've opposed nuclear power for decades, and this is
another proof that it can't be safe," said Sven Teske, director
of renewable energy at Greenpeace International.
A leading U.S. scientist group said the incident
highlighted the grave risk of inadequate back-up power to
cooling systems at U.S. facilities. [ID:nN11275769]
New interest from governments and investors in nuclear
power follows the development of more advanced plants, and a
new focus on security of energy supply and moves to reduce
carbon emissions. Nuclear plants generate low-carbon power in
contrast to fossil fuels and can produce constantly unlike wind
and some other clean energy sources.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
estimated last month that about 10 countries have decided to
introduce nuclear power and started preparatory infrastructure
work, up from four in 2008. [ID:nLDE7191JL]
(Additional reporting by Daniel Fineren, Fredrik Dahl, Karolin
Schaps, and Scott DiSavino; editing by Martin Howell)
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