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Experts: Japan’s Nuclear Problems Could Greatly Affect Global Energy Policies

A view of Enel's power plant, built on a site of a projected nuclear plant which has not been completed, in Montalto di Castro in central Italy March 18, 2011. Italy, which is prone to earthquakes, is the only Group of Eight industrialized nation that doe
A view of Enel's power plant, built on a site of a projected nuclear plant which has not been completed, in Montalto di Castro in central Italy March 18, 2011. Italy, which is prone to earthquakes, is the only Group of Eight industrialized nation that doe

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Nico Colombant

Experts and diplomats are predicting Japan’s recent deadly earthquake and tsunami, along with its ongoing nuclear reactor crisis, will not have too much of an effect on Japan itself in the long-term, but rather on energy policies in other countries. During a discussion Friday in Washington, they said a scaling down of nuclear energy projects could have a damaging effect on efforts to curb pollution from other energy sources.

Japan’s ambassador to the United States, Ichiro Fujisaki, said he was confident his country would eventually overcome the earthquake-borne disasters.

“I do not want to prejudge the situation now, but what I can say is we are trying our best. We should overcome the situation and we will overcome the situation”

Possible chilling effect on nuclear power

Economists predicted the situation will have little overall effect on Japan’s economy, and may actually spur stimulus spending for reconstruction projects.

But an energy expert, Charles Ebinger, warned countries investing more and more in nuclear energy, may now stop those initiatives, and turn back to other energy sources.

He said this could derail international efforts in terms of trying to limit potential climate change.

“If China and India said we are not going to build nuclear and burn more coal, we might as well not worry about what we do on fossil fuel consumption because it will not make any difference. We will have climate change. And I do not think people have realized the degree to which you are not going to replace the nuclear plants with wind and solar in the near future. So you are talking about a fundamental change. You would see upward pressure on petroleum prices and it just would not be good for the world economy,” said Ebinger.

Anti-nuclear movement gets lift

Ebinger said it is clear that politicians in Germany, Italy, and Sweden already are trying to either phase out nuclear energy or eliminate new plans in the wake of the unfolding situation in Japan.

He says he believes the United States, which relies on nuclear plants for 20 percent of its electricity will see a slow downward trend in terms of nuclear reliance.

Ebinger, the director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said he believes there is currently an overreaction.

Possible overreaction

“I think a lot of people have not thought rationally about what the overall implications of using this incident as a death knell for nuclear power might lead us to.”

Exceptions where he believes there will be continued growth in nuclear plants include France, Belgium, Britain, and Baltic states in Europe, as well as Japan itself.

Japan’s government is continuing in its attempt to cool damaged reactors at the 40-year-old Fukushima-1 plant, where the tsunami knocked out diesel pumps that were used for back-up water power.

Worst-case scenarios considered

Many nuclear plants are located in coastal areas where it is easier to transport needed materials, but some experts are now questioning whether earthquake-prone areas should be avoided.

Outright opponents of nuclear plants say these type of accidents - where high levels of radiation leak out - have too much potential to harm the environment, fauna, food chain and human health.

The most significant accident at a nuclear plant was at the Chernobyl plant, in what is now Ukraine, nearly 25 years ago. Estimates of deaths attributed to that accident vary from several dozen staff and emergency workers to many more.

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