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Nuclear Renaissance Threatened by Reactor Crisis

Sunday, 13 March 2011 12:54 PM

Global expansion of nuclear power may draw more scrutiny and skepticism as the world watches Japan struggle to prevent a meltdown at a reactor damaged by a record earthquake, a former U.S. atomic regulator said.

“This is obviously a significant setback for the so-called nuclear renaissance,” said Peter Bradford, a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “The image of a nuclear power plant blowing up before your eyes on a television screen is a first.”

An explosion at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi No. 1 reactor, which had begun venting radioactive gas after its cooling system failed, injured four workers. The utility reported no damage to the building housing the reactor. It began flooding the reactor with sea water and boric acid to prevent a meltdown and eliminate the potential for a catastrophic release of radiation.

There are 442 reactors worldwide that supply about 15 percent of the globe’s electricity, according to the London-based World Nuclear Association. There are plans to build more than 155 additional reactors, most of them in Asia, and 65 reactors are currently under construction, the association said on its website.

New Reactors Planned

Japan gets about a third of its electricity from 54 nuclear power plants, the third-most after the U.S. and France. Two reactors are under construction and 12 more are planned, according to the World Nuclear Association.

China is tripling the number of its reactors, building 27 units to add to the 13 operating reactors on the mainland, according to the association. In the U.S., companies including Southern Co. and NRG Energy Inc. have submitted applications to build as many as 21 new reactors, adding to 104 existing units.

“Certainly it’s going to cause some reappraisals because this is what you call a show-stopping event,” said Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies and former senior policy adviser at the U.S. Energy Department.

U.S. utilities canceled 14 nuclear plant orders in the wake of the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The “immense” psychological effect of the accident spread through the Western world, the agency said in a report.

Three Mile Island

“The arguments that held sway during the Three Mile Island days will hold sway today with this accident,” said Tom Cochran, a nuclear physicist at the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council. “The situations are somewhat similar, assuming this doesn’t blow up or breach the reactor vessel.”

The U.S. should slow the construction of new domestic nuclear power plants until officials can assess whether the situation in Japan signals a need for additional safety measures, said Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who heads the Homeland Security Committee.

Twenty-three nuclear power plants in the U.S. were built according to designs that are similar to the Daiichi plant’s, Lieberman said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“I don’t want to stop the building of nuclear power plants, but I think we’ve got to quietly, quickly put the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened in Japan as a result of the earthquake and tsunami and see what more, if anything, we can demand of the new power plants that are coming online,” Lieberman said.

Good Safety Record

Still, Lieberman said he supports nuclear power because “it’s domestic and it’s ours and it’s clean.” U.S. plants have had a good safety record since safety standards were upgraded after the Three Mile Island accident, he said.

Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York said he remains a supporter of domestic nuclear power.

“The bottom line is, we do have to free ourselves of dependence from foreign oil in other half of the globe,” Schumer said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. “I’m still willing to look at nuclear. As I’ve always said, it has to be done safely and carefully.”

Those who advocate nuclear power, which emits virtually no carbon dioxide, as a way to combat climate change will now have to deal with a “greatly heightened skepticism” and “heightened unwillingness to have nuclear power plants located in one’s own neighborhood,” Bradford said.

GE Design

The damaged Japanese reactor, designed by General Electric Co., began commercial operation in 1971 and is similar to units still running in the U.S., said Cochran, who advised U.S. regulators on the cleanup of Three Mile Island.

Problems at the reactor may encourage the replacement of older models, said Sergei Novikov, a spokesman for Russia’s state-owned nuclear holding company Rosatom Corp.

“The global nuclear industry will speed up phasing out first-generation power units and start building new ones,” Novikov said.

Rosatom is building 15 new reactors worldwide, more than any other international supplier, five of them outside Russia.

GE, the largest U.S.-based reactor builder, is focused on the situation at the reactor in Fukushima and staff weren’t available to comment on the outlook for the industry, Michael Tetuan, a spokesman for the Fairfield, Connecticut-based company, said in an e-mailed message.

Troubling Situation

“In general, our business is going very well, but the situation in Japan is troubling,” said Vaughn Gilbert, a spokesman for Toshiba Corp.’s Westinghouse nuclear unit.

Jarret Adams, a U.S.-based spokesman for France’s Areva SA, declined to comment on the Fukushima situation or its effect on the nuclear industry.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in talks with its Japanese counterparts, according to a press release. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French Minister of Industry Eric Besson affirmed their nation’s confidence in the safety of nuclear power.

“We know how secure our power stations are,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin amid opposition calls for a rethinking of Germany’s use of nuclear power.

It’s too early to speculate on U.S. political and financial fallout from the accident in Fukushima, said Richard Myers, vice president for policy at the Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents reactor owners and builders.

‘Slow’ Renaissance

“We’ve been saying for five years now that we expect the renaissance of nuclear power would unfold slowly,” Myers said. “We expected to see between four and eight new nuclear reactors between now and 2020 and we still believe that.”

Preliminary construction has begun on new reactors in Georgia and South Carolina, where state regulators allow companies to recover the cost of reactors as they are built, he said.

Avoiding disaster in Japan may help the industry prove its ability to handle emergencies, said Dale Klein, a former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman and a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

“As long as they keep the core covered, as long as there’s no significant radiation release, it will demonstrate that the safety systems for the most part worked,” Klein said. “The human disaster that will be remembered will be the earthquake and the tsunami, which will have caused many more deaths.”

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Global expansion of nuclear power may draw more scrutiny and skepticism as the world watches Japan struggle to prevent a meltdown at a reactor damaged by a record earthquake, a former U.S. atomic regulator said. This is obviously a significant setback for the so-called...
Sunday, 13 March 2011 12:54 PM
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