Crisis in Japan gives pause to nuclear power developments around the globe

By Dorothy Davis  

Friday’s devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan has set in motion a tragic and rapid cascade of events that some predict may curb what has been touted as an emerging nuclear power renaissance.

Japan suffered the strongest earthquake ever recorded in the nation Friday, followed by an immense tsunami about 130 kilometers off the east coast of the island of Honshu. Along with power outages to homes and several branches of industry, 11 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors were forced to shut down.

Tohoku Electricity’s 2,100-megawatt (MW) Onagawa power plant was the first nuclear site to report an incident following the earthquake. Onagawa, which houses three boiling water reactors contended with a fire that was quickly extinguished and did not result in the release of radioactive materials.

Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s (TEPCO), 4,600 MW Fukushima Daiichi power plant soon followed with a report confirming that water levels were declining inside the reactors leading to cooling issues as workers tried to avert exposure of the nuclear fuel rods.

The situation at TEPCO’S Fukushima Daiichi power plant continued to escalate over the weekend and through Monday, resulting in two separate explosions and the release of radiation from the facility. Japanese officials have said there appears to be a low possibility of serious risk to public health as the reinforced walls around the radioactive cores of the damaged reactors appeared to be intact, and so far, the amount of radiation released has been limited.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) also issued a release Monday outlining Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. Territories and the U.S. West Coast is not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity as a result of the small releases from the Fukushima reactors.

Responding to a formal request from the Japanese government for assistance the NRC dispatched reactor experts, international affairs professional staffers and senior managers from the NRC’s four operating regions to Tokyo Monday.

Meanwhile, in the wake of Japan’s ongoing nuclear struggles some Governments have already placed moratoriums on existing nuclear projects while others reevaluate if nuclear power should play a part in their future energy mix at all.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the country would suspend its hard won plans to extend the lifespan of its 17 nuclear power plants for at least three months. At a press conference in Berlin, Merkel said that her government would run security tests on the country's existing nuclear power stations before making any further decision in the Fall.

Switzerland in a similar move has suspended the approval process for three new nuclear power projects while safety standards are revisited.

Meanwhile the U.S. expressed it does not intend to curb nuclear power development. The White House said President Barack Obama remains committed to keeping nuclear power as part of the nation’s energy mix despite concerns about its safety after the earthquake in Japan.

The Obama administration's proposed Clean Energy Standard calls on power companies to produce 80 percent of their electricity from sources including nuclear, natural gas, clean coal, and renewables by 2035.

"We view nuclear energy as a very important component to the overall portfolio we are trying to build for our clean-energy future," said Daniel Poneman, Department of Energy deputy secretary during a White House news conference. "But, be assured that we will take the safety of that as our paramount concern."

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