News

After Japan, Experts Rethink Costs, Safety of Nuclear Power

But China is still building a number of new reactors

A US military barge carrying pure water (bottom) leaves the quay near Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on April 4, 2011.
A US military barge carrying pure water (bottom) leaves the quay near Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on April 4, 2011.

Multimedia

Audio
Rosanne Skirble

In the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan a year ago, experts have been questioning whether nuclear power can be developed economically and managed safely in the face of unpredictable natural events.  

The power plant was designed to withstand the largest tsunami ever to hit Japan, a 1960 event linked to a 9.5 magnitude earthquake in Chile, the largest earthquake in recorded history.

The earthquake that struck Japan last March was a magnitude 9.0. It set off a tsunami that crippled the Fukushima plant, killing 20,000 people and displacing 340,000 more. The plant suffered a partial meltdown and released potentially dangerous radiation over a wide area

Underestimating the danger

Thorne Lay, a seismologist with the University of California Santa Cruz, says the chances that a great wave could shut down the emergency backup systems at the power plant were underestimated.

“There are things we could do better.That is often the case with very complex technical systems that we build and don’t anticipate all the failure points.” For example, he says, “The project could have been engineered with backup power at very high elevations so that it could not possibly get drowned out.”   

The Japan earthquake was one of a series of large quakes around the world in recent years. From them, scientists have learned that one quake can closely follow another, that they can occur in shallow parts of faults and not just in deep waters, and that they can occur across an ocean ridge.  

Scientists now understand more about how and where earthquakes occur. But despite its growing ability to anticipate risk in certain regions, science cannot provide decision makers with all the answers.  

“What people have to do if they live in areas with earthquake potential is recognize that scientists are going to do their best to identify the long-term shaking hazard that guides engineering and construction standards," Lay says. "We will try to our best to give early warning if that’s possible and set up emergency response systems, but ultimately individuals need to prepare themselves.”

Rethinking economics of nuclear power

Safety is just one concern for the nuclear power industry.

Since the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Russia in 1986, nations have been rethinking the economics of nuclear power, says Peter Bradford, a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The cost of building a nuclear plant and generating electricity from it is much higher than other sources of power.  

“New nuclear just hasn’t been able to compete in the power markets," says Bradford. "Investors just won’t take the risk of somehow being able to make money by selling 12-cent kilowatt hours in a five or six-cent market.”

The price of natural gas in some areas is that low and in addition, Bradford says, the demand for electricity has fallen.

“When you add to that the fact that the public has now seen several reactors blow up on their television screens, politicians have seen the fall of Japanese government, largely as a result of the accident, thousands of people being unable to return to their homes and liability estimates that start at $100 billion. That certainly has made the nuclear case even harder to make.”

Building new reactors

But a new plant is under construction in the U.S. state of Georgia, the country’s first since the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in Pennsylvania. The costs will be passed on to customers.

Even if that plant is built on time and on budget, Bradford says, it is still a recipe for going broke, given the current power market. But, he points out, that doesn’t mean nuclear can’t and isn’t working elsewhere.

“The Chinese, for example, are still building, a substantial number of new reactors. That’s really the paradigm, the only paradigm that can still work for new nuclear is a strong central government that is committed to making the public pay, either as taxpayers or as customers.”   

For some, nuclear power is justified by its primary virtue: it is clean energy. The problem is balancing that virtue against the financial and environmental risks.

The role for nuclear in the energy power marketplace and how it can be managed safely will be on the agenda later this month when world leaders gather at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea.

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Ronald Wagner
March 09, 2012 11:43 AM
Natural gas finds have eliminated any need for more coal or nuclear plants in most of the world. China just announced that they have twice as much natural gas potential as we do. Nuclear plants only benefit the nuclear plant industry and their contractors. The public pays for the energy at whatever they say it costs, then they pay for decommissioning the plant, storing the radioactive waste for thousands of years, protecting it for terrorists, and paying for any disasters.

by: Rick
March 09, 2012 8:48 AM
Fukushima is dead. They had to top kill the reactor in the emergency by spraying salt water inside it, totally ruining the multibillion dollar reactors inside.
Japan has in storage hundreds of spent cores and each core will require cask containment at a cost of $100 million dollars each, with no guarantee the exotic casks won't leak or rupture.

by: MKing
March 09, 2012 6:41 AM
This so called "expert" is just plain wrong. Look up the facts for yourself. Here is one resource.

http://nuclearfissionary.com/2010/04/02/comparing-energy-costs-of-nuclear-coal-gas-wind-and-solar/

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs