Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Whither Nuclear Power? Down in Europe; Down in USA; Up in Asia

Actual impact on current and future nuclear stations around the world is already taking place. At least twelve reactors have been taken off line or effectively cancelled: 7 in Germany; 3 in Switzerland; and 2 in Texas. Fukushima makes it probable that the world will not double by 2021 the number of nuclear reactors operating as was almost certain prior to this disaster.

This significant reaction to actual plant operations is just the beginning of the impact on nuclear power, because the odds are still rising of a massive radiation release at Fukushima.   Fukushima is already a 6 on the 0 to 7 nuclear event scale (Three Mile Island was a 5). With possibly two containment reactors compromised and fires igniting in a fuel rod cooling pond, the odds of the worst case scenario and Fukushima reaching a 7 are getting worse. 

Desperate, heroic actions are being taken by Fukushima employees who are putting their health and lives at real risk to prevent full meltdowns.  This courage and selflessness cannot be recognized enough and all of us should be thankful.

People are watching around the world, are frightened, and acting.  US sales of iodide are outstripping supplies, even though Iodide has side effects and should only be used when actual radiation readings indicate a health threat which they most certainly do not anywhere in the USA (including Hawaii).

Other actions include NRG's announcement this week that essentially kills the possibility of it building two new nuclear units in Texas with Tokyo Electric Power (the owner of Fukushima units) and the Japanese government as partners.

Germany has temporarily taken off line 7 nuclear plants that are more than 30 years old and announced it would rethink its position on extending the operational lives of plants beyond 2021.  Germany had decided that it would close all nuclear plants by that date but Chancellor Merkel reversed that policy and committed to extending the operating lives of the plants.  Now she has fliped again and is rethinking.  Nuclear power is a hot issue in upcoming German state elections.

Switzerland on monday announced that it would no longer replace 3 nuclear plants, as it had intended, at the end of their operating lives.

European authorities are moving forward with new safety inspections of all 143 nuclear plants in Europe.

So far the bright spots for nuclear power's future seem to be China and India.  Both governments have repeated their commitment to building substantial numbers of new nuclear plants. 

Prior to Fukushima it was likely that the world wide total of nuclear reactors would have doubled in the next 10 years from 442.  My estimate is that 10 years hence the world will have no more reactors operating than it has today.  Fukushima has changed enormously the future of world energy supplies.

Just one consequence will be more carbon and higher heat trapping gas concentrations in our atmosphere, because what takes the place of the nuclear plants that will close sooner or not get built will on average emit more carbon.

Gas, wind and solar had good prospects prior to Fukushima and will see even more growth over the next 10 years.

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