Just a few months ago, experts were talking about the "renaissance" of the nuclear power industry. After more than two decades of relatively safe operations and with public demands growing for clean, carbon-free power plants, many nations, including the United States, seemed ready to embrace nuclear energy as a clean, safe and efficient alternative to fossil-fuels. And then came the March 11th earthquake and tsunami that severely damaged the Fukushima-Daiichi reactor complex in Japan. Worldwide, countries like China with active nuclear power projects put them on hold for review, while Germany and several other countries simply canceled them. Overnight, new doubts have arisen about the future of nuclear power.
With the shutdown and radiation cleanup efforts at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant expected to last months, if not years, experts are wondering how the disaster will affect the growth of the multi-billion dollar nuclear power industry around the world. Even the most optimistic analysts forecast a serious slowdown.
Adrian Heymer is executive director of strategic programs at the U.S. Nuclear Energy Institute:
"After the incident in Japan, nuclear energy is going to continue to move forward," said Heymer. "It won’t move forward in the same pace in the next two or 3 years."
In the United States, not a single nuclear power plant has been built in 32 years - not since the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. Public fears of the environmental and public health risks of radiation leaks and the rapid development of other clean, renewable sources of energy have kept nuclear energy development in a box. And Fukushima, some experts say, could turn that box into a coffin.
Chris Flavin is the president of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental watch-dog group in Washington:
"This could well be the end of nuclear expansion worldwide," said Flavin. "The industry was already on a very narrow field of opportunity because of the huge costs and the significant public opposition in many countries."
But nuclear power advocates say mishaps have been rare. And they note that amid growing concerns over climate change, air pollution and the need for cleaner, carbon-free energy, nuclear power is already playing a vital role. Charles Ebinger is the director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"Nuclear power currently accounts for about 14 percent of all global electricity; and the simple reality is that if we were to forego further nuclear development in the near term that would place a great burden on additional fossil fuel utilization," said Ebinger.
"One small pellet in reactor fuel is equivalent to one ton of coal," said Heymer. "And there are normally between 80 to 100 railroad cars full of coal that are burned in a power plant each day."
Construction costs for a modern-day nuclear power complex can run into the billions of dollars and owners can spend years waiting for final operational approval. That has prompted many countries to question whether they want to approve any nuclear plants - new or old. Soon after the accident at Fukushima, Japan, many countries reacted. Charles Ebinger explains:
"Germany initially said they were going to close down seven plants and do safety reviews," he said. "They have now gone further and they are calling into question the future of nuclear power or new plants in Germany all together."
Countries like China and India - both facing the problems of air pollution and climate change - are investing heavily in non-fossil-fuel energy - like solar, wind, and especially nuclear power.
"China, which is leading the nuclear renaissance with 23 reactors under constructions and plans for 60 or 70 more in the near future, announced too that they were temporarily going to slow down and review their safety procedures," said Ebinger.
"When we write the final history of does Fukushima actually becomes the final chapter of the global nuclear industry, what happens in China will probably be the thing that determines how that story comes out," said Flavin.
In the United States, the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant cast a long shadow over the industry. The federal government's Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, has been in no hurry to grant new operating licenses:
"There is only one reactor under construction in the U.S. despite passage nearly six years ago of legislation that gives loan guarantees to the next four plants," said Ebinger. "There are now 20 plants in the pipeline before the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission], but they are moving very slowly and their supporters aren’t exactly pushing hard for it."
In the meantime, people still need electricity - and lots of it. According to the International Energy Agency, between now and the year 2050, the global demand for energy will triple, requiring an investment of about $350 trillion in energy infrastructure. How much of a role, if any, nuclear power will play is a question whose answer may lie in the smouldering ruins of the Fukushima reactors.