The nuclear accident at Japan’s troubled Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex appears to be heading from very bad to critical in the wake of the third explosion in four days, a fire in one of the plant’s spent fuel ponds, and radiation readings spiking to deadly levels within the plant.
Authorities in Tokyo, 140 miles southwest of the plant, observed rising radiation levels yesterday, and anecdotal reports of residents leaving Tokyo are mounting. Meanwhile, iodine pills to ward off nuclear poisoning are selling out in some cities on the West Coast of the United States and Canada, despite assurances from nuclear safety authorities that the risk of harmful exposures in North America is minimal.
Whatever the immediate dangers to health, one clear victim is the growing confidence in nuclear energy internationally. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement today was the most decisive turnabout in response to the crisis—she suspended her government’s decision just last year to extend the operating life of Germany’s nuclear power plants. She also ordered the immediate shutdown of seven plants built before 1980; officials say the plants will remain closed for safety evaluations through at least June.
Similarly doomed could be Italian utility Enel’s plans to revive nuclear energy. Enel and France’s Electricité de France have proposed the construction of four reactors that could provide a quarter of Italy’s electricity, but they must first win a referendum that would overturn Italy’s post-Chernobyl nuclear moratorium. The vote is set for this spring.
In an interview with Bloomberg News, the Indian Nuclear Power Corporation’s chairman acknowledged that Japan’s crisis could be “a big dampener” for his country’s plans to invest in nuclear generation by 2030. China, however, was holding firm on its nuclear ambitions. The Chinese government issued a statement Monday affirming its massive shift toward nuclear power—with over a dozen reactors in construction.
The unfolding tragedy’s impact on a nascent revival of reactor construction in the United States is too early to call, say experts. “It will be at least the end of the week before we will know enough about the progression of these accidents to assess policy outcomes,” says Per Peterson, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “Much will depend upon whether any radiation deaths or significant land contamination result.”
So far, the Obama administration is standing by hopes for a nuclear renaissance. Daniel Poneman, the U.S. deputy secretary of energy, said at a White House news conference Monday that nuclear has a key role in the U.S. power mix: “We have 104 operating reactors—that’s 20 percent of the electricity of this country; 70 percent of the carbon-free electricity in this country comes from nuclear power. We view nuclear energy as a very important component to the overall portfolio we’re trying to build for a clean energy future.”
However, some in Congress are pushing for a rethink. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and a longtime nuclear supporter, told CBS News this weekend that the U.S. should “quickly put the brakes” on reactor construction until the Japanese incidents are analyzed.