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One year later, there have be no casualties from radiation. But will the worldwide Nuclear Renaissance revive?
It was one year ago that a 9.0 earthquake hit Japan and its eastern Fukushima province and buried whatever hopes there might have been for a worldwide Nuclear Renaissance.
The Achilles’ heel of nuclear, of course, is that despite its stellar safety record and statistical standing as the least dangerous way of generating electricity, there is always the specter of that one huge accident that will take a devastating toll and leave some large portion of the earth uninhabitable. Six coal miners a day die in accidents in China. Thirteen people die every year trying to service windmills by landing on the 45-story structures in helicopters. So far there have been no casualties at Fukushima. But the 12-mile zone still remains evacuated and mobs in Japan, India, Germany, and sometimes the United States are calling for nuclear power to be abandoned altogether.
So how does the scorecard stand a year later and what are the possibilities of continuing the slow but steady revival of nuclear?
The epicenter of the accident still remains fairly traumatized. Japan got 33 percent of its electric power from nuclear and was one of the most advanced countries in developing the technology. But it may be a long time before it embraces nuclear again. All but one of Tokyo Electric Power’s reactors are now shut down and half are unlikely to reopen. The resulting shortage of electricity has hurt manufacturing and led to the nation’s first trade deficit in 31 years.
So far there have been no deaths or illnesses from radiation, although two older workers did die of heat stroke during the accident. Of the 31,000 people who have been evacuated, many have suffered from depression and a few have committed suicide. Radiation levels in the region are now about twice normal background. People in various parts of the world live with background 1,000 times as high, but extremely strict standards prevent Fukushima evacuees from returning to their homes.
Strong anti-nuclear movements have become politically powerful and several leading newspapers are keeping up a constant drumbeat of alarm. It is unlikely that Japan will be building any more reactors in the near future. Government officials have indicated, however, that Japanese industries will continue to sell their excellent nuclear products abroad. Westinghouse, Hitachi, and Mitsubishi are all world-leading manufacturers.
Premier Angela Merkel, herself a physicist, was stricken with remorse during the Fukushima accident and vowed to close all of Germany’s reactors in the next decade. In the year previous, she had revived Germany’s program by renegotiating a 2000 agreement to phase out all reactors by 2020. Now Germany has embarked on an ambitious, government-subsidized effort to switch to renewable energy. The results so far have been unpromising. This winter the output of Germany’s 2.5 GW of solar collectors has been operating at less than 5 percent cent capacity and the country has survived only by importing nuclear electricity from France and the Czech Republic. At one point it had to ask Austria to fire up an old oil-burning plant. Siemens, the country’s largest manufacturer, has complained the transition will cost $2 trillion and RWE and E.ON, the two largest energy companies, are laying off 14,000 workers because of slumping profits. What Germany’s effort is likely to prove is that powering an industrial country with wind and sunshine is a mirage.
China has shrugged off Fukushima and is proceeding with plans to expand nuclear at all due speed. The Chinese are constructing the world’s first four Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, the first scheduled to go online in 2013. The AP1000’s “passive” design employs natural convection currents instead of electric pumps to circulate cooling water and will be able to avoid a Fukushima-type emergency.
Altogether China has 27 reactors under construction, with dozens more in the planning stage. All are being built on time and on budget. Last year Anne Lauvergeon, former CEO of France’s Areva, complained that the Chinese were building Areva’s EPR faster and cheaper than the French can do it themselves. Seventeen of the new reactors are the CPR-1000, China’s own design, pirated from Westinghouse’s AP1000. China has not yet tried to sell the design abroad, but when it does it could quickly dominate world markets.
The Chinese are also exploring futuristic technologies in a way that was once attempted in this country but has been abandoned. In 2011 the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) announced the commercialization of its first Integral Fast Breeder Reactor, a design that burns any kind of nuclear fuel and can eliminate the problem of “nuclear waste.” Project director Wang Junfeng told reporters that recycling could provide China 3,000 years’ worth of cheap electricity. America built an Integral Fast Breeder at the Idaho National Laboratory in the 1980s, but the Clinton administration excised it as part of a nuclear phase-out in 1994.
It was not surprising, then, that when Bill Gates’ new company, Intellectual Ventures, headed by Mi-crosoft’s former head of research, Nathan Myhrvold, decided to attempt an experimental model of its futuristic Travelling Wave Reactor, Gates ended up in Peking signing an agreement with the CNNC. The Travelling Wave promises to reprocess its own wastes and run for 100 years without refueling. Gates saw no possibility of moving ahead with the project in the United States.
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