The human tragedy unfolding in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami on Friday is of unspeakable proportions. The physical damage – and perhaps more importantly, the psychological impact – will take a long, long time to repair.
Among the many questions that will be raised will be what the future holds for the nuclear power industry in Japan. At the time of writing this, the full extent of the nuclear danger posed by the reactors in Fukushima is unclear. Reports of a partial meltdown at one of the plants that suffered the dreaded LOCA (loss of coolant accident) are streaming in, just as nearly 200,000 inhabitants residing around the plant are being evacuated. Eighteen people are also believed to be suffering from radiation poisoning.
While the reports understandably remain sketchy and contradictory so soon after the disaster, it can be said with a fair amount of certainty that opponents of nuclear power will immediately seize on this moment to declare the demise of this industry. Public confidence and support for this particular source of electricity is also likely to plummet. Indeed, some organizations in Japan, which has 53 nuclear power plants, are already beginning to advise the government to phase out nuclear energy.
Such knee jerk reactions are quite natural. But decisions on the future of the nuclear power industry will need a far more cool and calculated analysis in the long term. No one, least of all those involved in the multi-million dollar nuclear industry, has tried to ignore the fact that electricity production from nuclear fission is a complex and complicated technological process with genuine risks. Indeed, all the elements involved in reactor siting, design, construction, operation and decommissioning are conducted based on elaborately drawn up best practice under the watchful eye of national and international regulatory agencies.
Every nuclear mishap – and there have been two major incidents in the last six decades of nuclear power plant operations, namely the Three Mile Island incident in the United States in 1979 and the Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union in 1986 – have led to increasingly stringent safety requirements. Several new design features, such as double containment for the reactor, the core catcher and passive safety features are derivatives of past accidents. There will undoubtedly be several new lessons to be learnt from this latest experience. Countries around the world, and especially those embarking on new nuclear programmes, will be watching carefully.
It’s certainly unprecedented for an earthquake and tsunami of such magnitude to have occurred in such close proximity to a nuclear power plant. But Japan not only has long-standing experience of safe and efficient reactor operations, but is also well aware of the dangers posed by earthquakes, and so is well prepared for handling disasters of this nature. The acts of omission and commission of the people at the site, meanwhile, will clearly be analysed for a long time to come to allow future action plans to be drawn up.
I’ll continue to monitor the situation as it unfolds, and will try to provide some considered analysis on the subject in the coming weeks.
For the moment, though, we should commend the orderly manner in which the national disaster management authorities at the plants have conducted such a large-scale evacuation, as well as the continuing efforts of the technicians and engineers who are working around the clock at great personal risk to contain the damage.