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This week marks the one-year anniversary since the 9-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami rocked Japan. It was the strongest earthquake ever to hit the country, leaving an estimated 15,000 people dead. It caused roughly $34 billion worth of damage. Within hours of the afternoon quake, Tokyo Electric Power Co. reported a loss of power at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and later a meltdown. One year later, the international community is debating the safety of nuclear power. Though the Fukushima disaster was on par with the Chernobyl event in 1986, calling for a ban on nuclear power, however, may be something of a knee-jerk reaction.
At about 4 pm local time on March 11, 2011, TEPCO reported that the generators at Fukushima were without power. A few hours after that, cooling functions were suspended and by the end of the week, several units of the Fukushima nuclear power plant were melted down.
The accident sparked a near-universal examination of the safety of nuclear power. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a decision to phase out nuclear power in the wake of the accident to close eight of the country's 17 nuclear reactors by the end of 2011 and ordered a complete shutdown by 2022. That decision, by their estimates, cost Germen energy companies RWE and E.ON about $1.3 billion.
Apart from the financial consequences, residents in areas as far away as the U.S. east coast, fed largely by the media frenzy, began to express concern about nuclear material from the Fukushima disaster. While some 300,000 people were relocated and many more directly impacted by the meltdown in Japan, the Environmental Protection Agency said fears in the United States were largely overblown.
Power wise, the nuclear disaster forced Japan to start taking on more natural gas to balance the country's energy sector. With Asian economies booming when compared with the rest of world, the shifting focus on eastern markets could spell trouble for other countries looking to add more natural gas to their energy mix. This, in turn, would lead to higher costs and potentially exacerbate already-growing concerns about the impact that soaring energy prices are having on global economic recovery.
With any anniversary comes time for reflection and this one's no different. Major players at the IHS CERA energy conference in Houston last week said maybe nuclear power has had its day. Why risk it when renewables are gaining momentum? There may be enough natural gas available to last a thousand years, collectively speaking. Meanwhile, Japan's former prime minister writes in Foreign Affairs that it's time to phase out nuclear technology all together. He maintains that, given the dual threat of meltdown and proliferation, there's simply no amount of precaution that can make nuclear technology safe.
The first unit at the Fukushima Diacchi nuclear power plant went into service in 1970 and all six came online six years later. Some of the risks associated with the plant were known as early as 1971 and some safety issues had already been reported by 1979. But those incidents are nothing compared with the 2011 disaster. While it's easy to compare the Fukushima disaster to the Chernobyl tragedy in 1986, the technology improvements during those past 25 years shouldn't be thrown discarded. Western governments, even those with vast natural gas resources, say nuclear power is here to stay. Just as no serious consideration was given to abandoning oil after the Deepwater Horizon tragedy in 2010, not taking a lessons-learned approach to nuclear energy is about as wise as the calls for all outright ban.
By. Daniel J. Graeber of Oilprice.com
Daniel Graeber is a writer and political analyst based in Michigan. His work on matters related to the geopolitical aspects of the global energy sector,…