How will the Japanese nuclear power plant disaster impact the future of the nuclear energy industry?

In the days following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant crisis, tensions have flared over whether greater regulations need to be implemented in the construction of new plants and/or whether increasing global demand for electric power should trump fears over another “black swan” event and the potential impact to human life and the environment such an event might have. We turned to our panel of nuclear energy experts to ask them how this crisis has set the stage for the future of the industry and here’s what they had to say:

Wayne Reitz, President of Reitz Consulting Ltd., a company that specializes in metallurgical evaluation and component failure analysis, says that the perception of the public will determine how government officials react. In particular, the news media will play a key role in swaying public opinion, because this is how the public remains informed regarding details of the events unfolding at the nuclear plants in Japan. For example, Reitz references when the movie ‘Jaws’ “killed tourism in Florida” as a result of public hysteria. Likewise, the movie ‘China Syndrome’, which preceded the Three Mile Island incident, drastically impacted public hysteria and misconceptions. Although no one was hurt and “radioactivity was essentially zero,” the lack of information and access to all the facts caused the US nuclear industry to “hit a standstill for the last 30 years.” This shift in public opinion will influence the industry to include more solar, geothermal, and wind energy.

Alan Herbst, a consultant with over 23 years of experience in energy consulting and a Principal at Utilis Advisory Group, understands that the tragic circumstances at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors in Japan will have a long-lasting impact on the global nuclear power industry, “hindering its growth for years and potentially decades.” Even prior to these events, concerns over carbon emissions, rising energy prices, and fuel supply security have swayed the public opinion in favor of nuclear plants. Herbst explains that with the passage of time, it has become easier to forget about the events of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Although the US only obtains 20% of its electricity from nuclear power, the rest of the world has been aggressively increasing the number of reactors – now totaling approximately 440 plants that produce 14% of the world’s electricity. Yet in the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the standards for how nuclear reactors are designed and placed will “most certainly be upgraded.” However, this will make creating nuclear reactors significantly more expensive, impacting the economics of such projects. That said, Herbst acknowledges that the current crisis in Japan “won’t have a uniform impact” on global nuclear development. Countries like the US will face greater scrutiny over license renewals and federal subsidies, while countries like China and India will continue to build plants in order to counter “critical electrical power shortages.”

LJFurman, a consultant specializing in sustainability, says that radioactive waste and power plant meltdowns are “intrinsic properties” of nuclear power. Although it is possible to limit these consequences, such safeguards are extremely expensive. However, it is clear from the events in Japan that the “consequences of failure are high,” rendering an area of about 7,850 miles “uninhabitable, unfarmable, and unfishable for decades.” Alternative energy is an option, but proponents must keep in mind that solar panels and wind turbines can be damaged in earthquakes and tsunamis. LJFurman also understands that if the government stops giving subsidies to nuclear power plants, “the industry would collapse.” The same holds true for the fossil fuel industry, especially after factoring in the “hidden ‘externalized’ costs of environmental clean up.” LJFurman suggests that rather than keeping nuclear and fossil fuels “on life support while fuel gets harder and more expensive to extract,” the best and brightest engineering minds work together to create clean, sustainable power.

Jeff Knight, a consultant specializing in emergency response, hazardous materials management, and environmental remediation, says that the nuclear crisis in Japan will slow future growth of the nuclear industry worldwide. In particular, European and Far Eastern countries will be more likely to reduce their growth for a longer period than the US, because such countries rely more on nuclear energy. Knight predicts that while there will be some “political turmoil” in the US over the use of nuclear energy, the “thirst for electricity” is too strong to completely dismantle the nuclear industry. There will likely be additional safeguards established in order to increase safety and precautions for emergency events. These new designs may be able to increase earthquake preparedness to even an “8.3 or greater in constructability.” However, it is possible that the use of a Boiling Water Reactor (BWR), a technology that is older and less safe than a Pressurized Light Water Reactor (PWR), will stop being utilized. Knight believes that ultimately, nuclear power will “win out” because it has continuously been proven to be extremely effective in providing “cheap, reliable, clean, and efficient power” to customers. Alternative like wind turbines and solar panels are viable options, but they are not realistic in delivering the necessary amount of energy to supply current energy consumption. Knight states that unless “we are willing to give up much of our lifestyles and revert back in time,” there is no other source of energy that can meet current needs.

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