Fukushima May Derail Global Investment in Nuclear Power

As the tragedy in Fukushima continues to unfold, and the world watches helplessly, hoping for the safety of the Japanese people, a debate over the viability of nuclear power as a safe energy source has come to the fore, particularly in energy policy circles.

Many environmentalists have long supported nuclear power as an efficient, low-carbon emitting alternative energy source to traditional fossil fuel-based power like coal, oil or natural gas, particularly in population-dense countries like Japan where, because open unused land is scarce, large scale wind and solar power plants aren’t feasible.  With global power supply needs rising and no major nuclear catastrophe in decades, many countries have embraced nuclear power in recent years.

While the full extent of the fallout from Fukushima has yet to be determined, some energy experts continue to defend nuclear power by pointing out that, statistically speaking, more people around the world have been killed by oil refinery explosions and coal mine collapses than by nuclear accidents.  They also argue that the long term environmental impact by oil spill disasters like the Exxon Valdez and BP’s Deep Horizon can be just as devastating as a nuclear catastrophe.  Energy creation, they argue, will always have its dangers, regardless of the methods used to procure it.

To quell growing fears of a possible nuclear disaster occurring within their borders, many governments are now taking a hard look at the risks and rewards of nuclear power.  China, one of the most ambitious governments in the nuclear power space (28 plants or roughly 40% of the world’s nuclear power plants currently being built are located in China), has ordered a temporary freeze on the approval of new nuclear projects.   It remains to be seen whether or not the crisis in Japan will merely slow rather than derail China’s foray into nuclear power as the nation’s voracious energy demands need to be met and the government has outlined plans to rely more on nuclear energy in the coming decade as it moves away from coal power.

Meanwhile, back home, Energy Secretary Steven Chu will testify before a House Energy Subcommittee today about the safety of nuclear power in the United States.  His prepared testimony can be viewed here. President Obama remains a proponent of nuclear power, as it is a key component to his national energy policy.  However, this support will come under scrutiny if the situation in Japan spirals out of control.  Some have speculated that Fukushima may have the same impact on US nuclear energy policy as Three Mile Island did in 1979 – effectively tabling any plans for major expansion.

Obviously, the effects of a nuclear disaster like Fukushima cannot be downplayed.  The long term environmental and societal devastation will likely be felt in Japan for decades.  Despite this tragedy, the question must be asked: can nuclear power still be considered a viable energy source?  Do the potential risks outweigh the rewards?  Can nuclear engineers learn from this tragedy and institute safety precautions to avoid another Fukushima?  Or is a catastrophic event inevitable just by the very fragile and potentially unstable nature inherent to nuclear power technology?

These are all very tough questions that will need to be answered one way or another.