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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Three Years After Fukushima, What’s Next for Nuclear Power?

March 11 marks the third anniversary of the tsunami that hit Japan and led to the disaster at Fukushima-Daiichi. Thousands died from the tsunami, and many are still living in temporary housing. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently said that the recovery and reconstruction efforts are only “halfway” done. Three years on Japan is still contemplating the role of nuclear power in a country without much in the way of indigenous energy resources. After years of rationing electricity, blackouts, and pleas for the public to reduce energy consumption, Japan is still considering its next steps.

Prime Minister Abe has stated that nuclear reactors that pass inspections and are deemed to be safe can return to operation. He has assured the public that they will meet the highest safety standards by building new flood walls and installing backup power at power plant sites. The safety measures and upgrades have cost an estimated $12.3 billion and counting.

Related Article: Japan Hints at Nuclear Safety Resolution

Yet, for Japan’s Prime Minister, however, that price tag pales in comparison to higher imported fuel costs. Japan is suffering a heavy economic burden by keeping its reactors idle. Already the largest importer of liquefied natural gas in the world before the Fukushima disaster, Japan has had to scramble to import coal, LNG, and oil to replace its lost power after shutting down its reactors. As a result, Japan saw its trade deficit balloon to around $113 billion in 2013, the highest it has been in recent memory.  By one estimate, Japan may be spending an additional 10 billion Yen ($96 million) per day by keeping its nuclear reactors turned off.

It therefore appears that the country is facing too much economic pressure to keep its reactors switched off. This past Sunday, however, tens of thousands of Japanese citizens protested the Prime Minister’s plan in a massive anti-nuclear rally in Tokyo. The large anti-nuclear sentiment poses a quandary for Abe: a recent poll shows that 69% of respondents said that nuclear power plants should be shut down immediately or phased out over time. He has staked out quite an unpopular position.

The cleanup is not going well either. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the owner of the crippled reactors, is struggling to get a handle on the disaster site. It has presided over leaks and spills of radioactive water – it is spending tons of money to prevent the flow of rainwater through the disaster site that would take radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. TEPCO is continuously putting contaminated water in temporary storage tanks on site. Completing the cleanup will take 40 years and could cost tens of billions of dollars.

Related Article: Japan Looks at Recycling Vehicle Batteries for Renewable Power

On the other hand, a side effect of having to deal with such a large undertaking is that Japan may develop a brand new industry of nuclear cleanup and decommissioning technologies. The AP reported on the potential for Japan to lead in an industry that is only set to grow, with hundreds of aging nuclear reactors around the world destined for decommission in the coming decades. Japan’s new robotic technologies being deployed in Fukushima may eventually make decommissioning faster, cheaper, and safer. Japan could take its experience with the Fukushima cleanup, and find lucrative work around the world.

In the United States, the nuclear industry is still taking steps to ensure its aging reactor fleet is safe from unforeseen events such as floods and earthquakes, as reported recently in The New York Times. “Fukushima woke up the world nuclear industry, not just the U.S.,” said Allison MacFarlane, NRC Chairwoman, in an interview. Plant owners are installing flood walls, backup generators, and upgraded equipment. Still, three years after the Fukushima disaster, the industry and the NRC have not finalized all regulatory decisions, meaning that completing safety upgrades in the U.S. could stretch into the next decade.

By Nicholas Cunningham of Oilprice.com


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Leave a comment
  • Matt Robinson on March 11 2014 said:
    I hope Abe holds his ground.

    Energy choices are not, and should not be, popularity contests. Nations can't afford to ignore the economics of energy, and need to make their choices based on many factors beyond popular fear (however misguided it may be).

    Unfortunately Leaders must be elected (which *is* a popularity contest) so protests like these cannot be ignored. However Abe has a bigger mandate - provide his people with reliable, cost-effective, safe, and *clean* energy.

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