Fukushima marks a 'nuclear ice
age' By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO - The era of nuclear renaissance is
over. The Fukushima shock marks the beginning of
the "nuclear ice age".
The ongoing nuclear
crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant
following an earthquake and tsunami is stirring up
energy policy of almost all countries that use
nuclear power. The repercussions from Fukushima
are being strongly being felt at home and abroad,
just as aftershocks are still being felt in
northern Japan, including Tokyo.
432 nuclear plants operating in 30 countries
across the globe, with 66 reactors under
construction. Prime Minister Naoto Kan said last
Thursday he will rethink from bottom up the
government's plan to build at least 14 more
nuclear reactors by
2030, as Japan scrambles to
overcome its worst nuclear crisis.
United States, President Barack Obama's
pro-nuclear stance is coming under fire. His plans
to go ahead with more nuclear plants in the US are
facing mounting opposition.
The US has 104
commercial nuclear reactors, the most in the
world. Of these, 23 were built to an identical
design as the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactors.
Each uses the "Mark I containment system",
designed by General Electric decades ago. ABC
News and the New York Times, among other media,
reported last month that experts had long
criticized the ability of this containment system
to withstand the events that cascade from what
nuclear experts call a "station blackout" - where
the loss of power cripples the reactor's cooling
system. This "station blackout" scenario was
unfortunately realized when a massive tsunami
destroyed all emergency power systems at the
In Germany, the Fukushima shock
has forced Chancellor Angela Merkel to change a
pro-nuclear position. She suspended government
plans to extend the lives of the nation's 17
nuclear plants until the completion of a thorough
three-month investigation into reactor safety. She
also ordered the closure of all seven plants that
began operating before 1980.
President Nicolas Sarkozy is also facing a
predicament. France has 59 nuclear reactors, five
more than Japan. Due to both public and private
sector support, nuclear energy currently
contributes nearly 80% of electric power supply.
This is the world's highest dependency on nuclear
energy surpassing Japan's 29%, the US's 20% and
the United Kingdom's 18%. For France, nuclear
reactors, fuel products and services are a major
This is why Sarkozy and French
nuclear energy giant Areva NC are stepping up
assistance to cool Fukushima's reactors, and find
a solution for the contaminated water seeping out
of the troubled nuclear facility. Besides a
humanitarian standpoint, this is damage control
for French business.
Sarkozy and Japanese
Prime Minister Naoto Kan said last Thursday that
the upcoming meeting of the Group of Eight
industrialized countries on May 26-27 will take up
the issue of global nuclear safety and discuss the
need for a global safety standard for nuclear
The Fukushima shock has also
sparked foreign interference in domestic affairs.
Greek President Karolos Papoulias last month urged
neighboring Turkey to reconsider plans to build
its first atomic power stations.
Korea, the debate has focused on a "nuclear
cooperation agreement" with the US - set to expire
in 2014 - that forbids South Korea from possessing
spent fuel reprocessing facilities. South Korea
has 20 nuclear reactors at present and nuclear
energy produces about 40% of the country's
Seoul's biggest problem is
that its nuclear power plants are running out of
space to store spent nuclear fuel. Sources say
South Korea will likely establish interim storage
facilities as a stop-gap measure, but this will
become a big issue again as the deal's end draws
The list goes on. Nuclear power
plant exporters such as the US, France, Canada,
Russia, Japan and South Korea are caught in a
The "nuclear renaissance
will diminish," Tetsuya Endo, former governor of
the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA)
told Asia Times Online on Friday. "Should any
nuclear accident happen somewhere in the world, it
becomes an accident of the whole globe."
Sweeping overhaul of Japan's nuclear
fuel cycle Japan is experiencing a big
irony of history. The only country in the world
that has suffered from atomic bombs is now
fighting a nuclear disaster caused by nature. The
situation at the nuclear plant remains precarious,
as plant engineers, Self-Defense Forces (SDF)
members, firefighters and the police continue
desperate efforts to cool down the overheating
reactors and spent fuel.
Even if the
country gets the plant under control, an emotional
public will be wary of nuclear power forever.
Japanese people were already extremely
sensitive about anything nuclear as the only
country in human history to have ever been
attacked with nuclear weapons. Older generations
especially have a "nuclear allergy" over the
atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their
memories of the "A-bombs" are still raw.
Despite this resentment towards nuclear
technology, Japan was forced to expand nuclear
power generation after the two oil shocks in the
1970s, which exposed Japan's heavy reliance on the
Middle East for energy resources.
Petroleum provided about 60% of the whole
nation's electricity in 1970, but now it only
provides about 10%. Japan imports 99% of its oil
from abroad. Although Japan aimed to reduce the
dependency rate on petroleum from the Middle East
after the oil shocks, it still imports nearly 90%
of oil from the Middle East.
plant will be decommissioned and no local
government or community is likely to accept the
building of a new nuclear power plant in their
The Fukushima incident will be a
severe setback for Japan's nuclear fuel cycle,
Endo said. The nuclear fuel cycle starts with the
mining of uranium and ends with the disposal of
nuclear waste. With the reprocessing of used fuel,
the stages form a true cycle. Japan has been
implemented this program since 1956, according to
However, the nation has been unable
to locate a site for a second nuclear reprocessing
plant after the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant of
Aomori Prefecture, which managed to escape damage
from the March 11 earthquake.
Hirose, a well-noted Japanese writer on nuclear
problems, has pointed out there are about 3,000
tons of highly radioactive used nuclear fuel
stored in Rokkasho that could overheat
and catch fire if the cooling systems fail. This
amount could spread nuclear fallout or "ashes of death"
to the whole world, he said.
Takahashi is a Tokyo-based Japanese
journalist. His twitter is @TakahashiKosuke.
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