While Japanese government officials struggle to prevent another explosion at stricken nuclear facilities and a full meltdown at least 2 of 6 nuclear reactors as well as medically examine for radiation exposure some of the 170,000 people evacuated from the area, the Fukushima disaster is more serious than the Three Mile Island accident. ( I blog from my home within the Three Mile Island evacuation area). It appears that one reactor and possibly two have partially melted down as a result of loss of cooling water.
Observers must speculate to some degree, because Japanese officials are either unsure of the exact condition within the reactors or are not providing full and clear information to their citizens or the world or possibly both.
So what do the last 72 hours mean? In terms of world energy production, this event will have longer and bigger impacts than the BP oil spill. It will mean the closure of some nuclear reactors years before they would have otherwise closed and raise the already high costs of new nuclear plants even more.
Specifically the Fukushima nuclear accident has already:
1. Shut down almost certainly forever at least 6 of Japan's 55 nuclear reactors and probably more. Other Janpanese nuclear reactors are vulnerable to earthquakes and it is highly likely that the Japanese public will demand their early closure.
2. The 6 reactors now off line represent nearly 1.5% of the world's 442 operating reactors as of January 2011.
3. If two reactors at Fukushima have partially melted down there, a total of 4 reactors at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now at Fukushima have partially melted down or approaching 1% of reactors built.
3. The Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor, one of 104 American reactors, that is owned by Entergy will now close with 100% certainty. The Vermont Legislature voted to close the plant but Entergy sought a new owner for the plant with the hope that new ownership and management could convince Vermont state government to reverse its position. Forget it.
4. Nuclear plants in California will be targeted for closure. Other US nuclear plants with earthquake risk will face substantial opposition to any license renewal and may well have to fend off organized efforts to close them before the end of their 40 year license.
5. The cost of new nuclear plants in the USA just went up. Their costs already are so high, at least $6,000 per kilowatt, that no company would build one here without the US government providing a 100% loan guarantee.
6. Japan before friday got about 30% of its electricity from nuclear power. It will have lost at least 5% of its power production and possibly more. Japan will be using more natural gas. While natural gas has much less emissions than coal or oil, gas will mean more carbon and other conventional emissions than the nuclear plants.
7. Fukushima means substantial new opposition to nuclear power in Europe. On saturday, 60,000 Germans took to their streets to protest the German government's position on closing or not closing existing plants there. That will be just the beginning of pressure on existing plants and opposition to new ones in Europe.
8. Fukushima makes it even more likely that natural gas and solar power will dominate world energy production over the next 20 years (See prior posting for more on why).
All energy choices have consequences. More or less of one or another creates tradeoffs.