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How Will the Japan Nuclear Crisis Impact the U.S. Nuclear Industry?

August 12th, 2011

The spring 2011 crisis at the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan prompted a range of responses from industry experts and environmentalists. Some predicted the disaster would herald an end to nuclear build programs, while others expressed confidence that the sector can learn lessons from the events in Japan.

Friends of the Earth executive director Andy Atkins said the explosions demanded “an urgent rethink” of new-build nuclear plants, while Tom Clements, the NGO’s Southeast area campaign coordinator, said he also expected a reassessment of nuclear policy.

“The only positive thing to come out of this is that I believe it will cause a renewed interest both by industry and the public in renewable energy and energy efficiency,” Clements said. “This is going to persuade the financial investors to move away from this risky technology.”

However, John Kemp, Thomson Reuter’s energy analyst, warned that moving away from nuclear would damage countries’ attempt to meet energy security and emissions goals

“If we don’t replace reactors with more nuclear, we have to burn more fossil fuels or undertake severe demand reduction strategies,” he said. “Long term, it’s very much up in the air, and the question for regulators is if you don’t do nuclear, what’s the alternative?”

Before Fukushima, the U.S. nuclear power industry believed it was poised for a renaissance.

President Obama’s 2012 budget proposed $36 billion in loan guarantees to build nuclear power plants. There was also a plan to spend hundreds of millions on nuclear energy research and modern reactor design.

After Fukushima, industry experts and analysts immediately began to ponder the political fallout in the United States.

According to the lawyers in site, the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania froze the nuclear power industry in the U.S. for 30 years. The Three Mile incident did not cause any deaths, but many Americans were terrified by the plant’s move to vent radioactive steam into the air and by talk of a potential meltdown. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster only reinforced American skepticism of nuclear power.

In recent years, industry executives and their political allies have promoted nuclear power as “clean energy,” because, unlike coal or natural gas, it does not produce the greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

The U.S. currently has 104 nuclear plants in 31 states. Together, they produce 20% of the nation’s electricity. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing 20 more license applications from a dozen companies seeking to produce nuclear power. The industry expects up to eight new reactors to be churning out power by 2020, according to Mitch Singer, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Singer said he thinks the explosion in Japan should reassure Americans that our plants will be prepared for any emergency, because the industry will disseminate lessons learned at Fukushima around the globe, helping other reactors shore up their defenses against devastating natural disasters. In his opinion, “I don’t think we’re going to see a major impact on the U.S. nuclear industry.”

But Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, predicted Americans would respond to the Japanese disaster with “greatly heightened skepticism and heightened unwillingness to have nuclear power plants located in [their] own neighborhood.”

He also predicted greater regulatory scrutiny of existing nuclear plants that are seeking to extend their operating licenses, especially when those plants are located in seismically active zones, such as Southern California’s San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station and Diablo Canyon Power Plant.

“The image of a nuclear power plant blowing up before your eyes on the television screen is a first,” Mr. Bradford said. “That cannot be good for an industry that’s looking for votes in Congress and in the state legislatures.”


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