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Japan and the future of nuclear power

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15 March 2011 08:51

Japan's post-earthquake nuclear problems have escalated, with major accidents at two or more nuclear reactors, which are the most serious since the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979 and the Chernobyl accident in 1986.

While the consequences and implications from these accidents will take weeks, months and likely years to settle and be analysed by technical and policy types alike, speculation is already rife as to what the accident will mean for the international nuclear landscape. Uranium stocks have plunged on the Australian market as Japanese authorities assess the risk of radiation contamination following damage to nuclear reactors in the country. 

Some have suggested that the accident spells the end of the so-called 'nuclear renaissance', an increase in the uptake of nuclear energy surpassing its heyday in the 1980s, forecast on the basis of the large number of governments currently interested in nuclear power programs for the first time. While industry representatives have responded that the Japanese situation is unique, this 'perfect storm' explanation is little comfort to Japanese people and unlikely to allay the concerns of people around the world, including in Australia, that remain wary of or even hostile to nuclear power.

The image of one of the most advanced nuclear nations struggling to contain a reactor meltdown could haunt public opinion and the civil nuclear industry for many years to come.

As we write, the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plants is still on a knife edge. What we already know is that these accidents will catapult nuclear safety back to the top of the international nuclear policy agenda, and the domestic nuclear policy agendas of nuclear nations. The nuclear industry will have to fight a battle to convince the public that nuclear power is safe all over again, a battle it had appeared to be winning prior to the accident. Reactor vendors and operators may also re-visit reactor designs to make sure that reactors will withstand a situation as extreme as that in Japan.

The German Government has announced its intention to inspect its nuclear plants and other governments will no doubt follow in reviewing their safety procedures, and possibly also criteria for extending the lives of older reactors (the Fukushima Dai-ichi No.1 reactor is 40 years old). Aspiring nuclear countries may re-consider their plans, especially those which have aggressive growth policies, although Chinese authorities have already declared that they will press ahead.

The IAEA may also re-examine how well the regime of international nuclear safety and accident mechanisms and conventions function. Coincidentally, the next triennial meeting under the convention on Nuclear Safety (which regulates the safety of nuclear power reactors) will be held in April 2011

In the meantime, only time will tell whether the lessons learned from previous nuclear accidents have been heeded or have yielded sufficient improvements to limit the severity of this nuclear accident. Let's hope that other elements of the international nuclear safety architecture, such as those relating to international liability for damage caused, don't have to be tested.

Photo, by Flickr user Digital Globe, is a satellite image of Japan showing damage after an earthquake and tsunami  at the Dai Ichi Power Plant. This was taken at 11:04am local time, 3 minutes after an explosion.

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