Two years ago today, Japan was devastated by eruptions of the land, the sea, and the atom. Nearly 20,000 perished after an earthquake and its consequent tsunami liquified roads and swept away entire villages. In a final blow, the invading ocean wrecked backup cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing three full reactor meltdowns and an explosion that vented radioactive material into the atmosphere. The world’s second-worst nuclear disaster drove thousands of residents from their homes and caused the government to shut down all 50 of the nation’s reactors.
Very few were killed in the reactor disaster itself, but cleaning up will be arduous. It may take up to 40 years to fully decontaminate the area, and a recent estimate from plant operator Tepco pegs the cleanup bill at $125 billion. Worse still, nuclear’s abrupt suspension may further stall Japan’s leaden economy. Nuclear reactors supplied 30 percent of Japan’s electricity prior to the incident; to date only two have been restarted, and power costs are rising as Japan makes up its electricity deficit with imported natural gas. Four utilities have applied for government permission to hike rates, with one company adding 18 percent to bills for its industrial users.
Although Japan was badly shaken by the meltdowns, it’s important to note that Fukushima was not a repeat of Chernobyl. The radiation vented from the stricken reactors was only a fraction of what blanketed Ukraine, and a recent World Health Organization report on medical risks notes that though residents of the most contaminated areas do face an increased risk of cancer, the bump amounts to one-half of 1 percent over a lifetime. Even most of the emergency workers deployed in contaminated areas are no more likely to develop cancer than the general population.
Even if Fukushima turns out to be less deadly for residents than some predicted, did the incident kill the nuclear business? Protests flared around the world in the wake of the disaster, and governments scrambled to reassess their reactors’ vulnerability. Fukushima further soured western Europe on nuclear: Germany plans to decommission every one of its reactors by 2022 and even the atome-philic French are reconsidering their dependence on nuclear power.
Like its persistent byproducts, however, nuclear energy won’t be so easily banished. Even Japan is giving it another chance. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was bullish on nuclear energy in a recent speech to parliament, plus Japan can save an estimated $20 billion by restarting at least half its reactors by next year. Construction has resumed on a new nuclear reactor in the northern city of Oma, and the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant is still on track to start recycling nuclear fuel late this year.
“Fukushima has not had a tremendous effect on the industry,” says Jeremy Gordon at the World Nuclear Association, a trade group. Manufacturers and construction companies are cautiously optimistic as the developing world embraces atomic energy. “With Russia going strong, India planning a lot of new builds, and China back on the ball, in five years nuclear construction might be growing as fast as it was back in the 1970s,” Gordon says. Those nations play a huge role in nuclear’s continued growth: 70 percent of new reactor construction is taking place in China, Russia, India, and Korea.
The future of nuclear power is less certain in the frack-happy U.S., where five reactors currently under construction are threatened by cheap methane. “Natural gas is a killer,” says Chris Gadomski, lead nuclear analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, who explains that natural gas-fired plants have the dual advantages of abundant fuel and a lower picketing quotient. “There’s a societal mistrust of nuclear power, so why try to build a nuclear power plant when you can get cheap gas? Who needs the headache?”
Today nuclear reactors supply 13 percent of the world’s electricity, a share that will almost certainly be eroded by renewables. But until the day comes when low-emission technologies (of both carbon and gamma rays) can pump out as much on-demand electricity as fossil or nuclear plants, or until energy storage densities increase exponentially, nuclear will have a place at the carbon-free table. Also, nuclear is not as spectacularly dangerous as many people think. Even accounting for the effects of Fukushima-like incidents, nuclear energy has killed and maimed far fewer people than fossil fuel plants.
Even if the West turns away, emerging markets have secured nuclear’s position in the global energy mix for years to come. For them, the benefits outweigh the risks. “The countries that can effectively manage nuclear power are the ones that are going to be in a strong competitive position. Nuclear is just too powerful an energy source to ignore,” says Gadomski.
That power came loose two years ago in Fukushima, a catastrophe that will scar the area for decades even if every bit of uranium slag disappeared tomorrow. But even with bitter knowledge of the consequences, Japan is bringing nuclear in from the cold while ascendant economies pour more concrete and bundle more fuel rods. Fukushima was a grim reminder of nuclear power’s inherent dangers. The rest of the world has declared them manageable. For now.