Japan crisis threatens global nuclear development

March 14, 2011 6:58:53 PM PDT
Japan's nuclear plant problems are threatening the development of nuclear power around the globe.

Germany is putting off plans to extend the life of its nuclear facilities and Switzerland is holding off on new plants. Of course, all of this is raising questions and concerns about nuclear power in the United States.

Remember Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island accident? The political fallout from that helped kill the industry for three decades in the U.S. A nuclear engineer at U.C. Berkeley says that what is happening in Japan is very similar to what happened on Three Mile Island in terms of the reactor, but in terms of the politics, we are still unsure.

The earthquake in Japan has thrust up the old debate over the safety of nuclear power.

"Just the political and, I think, economic reality is that it is bad news," said Professor Daniel Farber, head of U.C. Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group.

Farber says the nuclear engineers are on the defensive because they know what is happening in Japan could jolt efforts to revive U.S. nuclear power industry.

"Proceedings are going to take longer and they're going to require more safeguards, and all of that adds up to more cost," Farber says.

13 months ago, President Obama promised 8$ billion in federal loan guarantees for nuclear plant construction.

"And, that means building a new generation of safe clean nuclear power plants in this country," he said to cheering crowds.

Plans for a total of 20 nuclear plants are on the drawing broads. Concerns over global warming have led the charge back to carbon-free nuclear power, a major shift after the industry was stopped dead in 1979 with a partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island.

When asked how bad the situation is in Japan, nuclear engineer Professor Jasmina Vujic at UC Berkeley says, "It's very similar, in a way, to what happened to Three Mile Island."

She also says this is good news because contamination from Three Mile Island was not that bad and it is unlikely the political fallout will be the same because global warming was not a widely-held concern in 1979. However, it is too early to tell. We still do not know how much damage there will be from the Japanese reactors.

We know there are 23 similar reactors around the country and when they come up for relicensing, safety concerns will almost certainly be raised. Senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations Michael Levi says judging Japans impact on U.S. nuclear power at this point is a little like looking at the rig explosion in the Gulf three days after the event and trying to determine the impact on off shore drilling.

"If you were anti-drilling, you looked at it and you saw a horrible environmental disaster. If you were pro-drilling, you looked at it and saw there was still limited physical impact on the shores," he explained.

In the Gulf, public opinion changed over time, but consider this... as gasoline prices top $4, we are talking more about prices than spills.


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