Fukushima Complicates Nuclear Expansion Worldwide: UMD Expert

Newswise — COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The damage to three nuclear power plants in Japan will renew debate worldwide, prompting a new look at needed levels of safety and redundancy, says University of Maryland energy policy expert Nathan Hultman.

“The events at Fukushima Daiichi 1, 2 and 3 will complicate planning for nuclear expansion for the coming years in all countries,” says Hultman, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. “The suspected partial core meltdowns at Fukushima have exposed what has always, and will always, persist with nuclear power – it is a technology that is perceived as dangerous, and no amount of redundancy will ever be able to completely scrub the specter of nuclear risk from discussions of energy policy.”

Hultman’s research focuses on energy technologies, international climate policy, carbon markets, and low-carbon energy technology investments. He is fully conversant with the policy issues surrounding nuclear safety.


“Reducing risks of a severe nuclear accident in times of duress requires, at a minimum, robust technology, layers of redundancy, and a culture of vigilance and safety. There are indelible questions about whether such management techniques are indeed sufficient. Multiple redundancies were in place for the BP oil spill on the blowout preventer, but eight separate failures overcame that strategy. Similarly, there were multiple defenses at Fukushima, but they didn't plan for a seven meter high tsunami; and they put a substation in an area that is now flooded, preventing some backup generators from being hooked up. In the end, the questions are really political ones – how much risk can we reduce through regulatory procedures and best practices, how much are we willing to live with, and how do we best judge it?” Hultman says.


“The level of threat due to radioactivity is elevated to the surrounding region, but whether this becomes a major risk depends fundamentally on what happens to the three unstable reactors (Fukushima Daiichi 1, 2, and 3). All three of these reactors are suspected of having at least a partial core meltdown, and therefore stabilizing them will require at a minimum a regular venting of partly radioactive steam. The worse the meltdown has been, the higher the radiation levels in the steam. This is at least moderate concern. A full core meltdown would be far more worrisome, leading to molten fuel in the bottom of the containment unit and increasing the likelihood of highly radioactive substances escaping. The worst case is if such molten material would breach the containment unit en masse. The containment vessels are designed to withstand this scenario and if we were to face a full meltdown we can only hope that they were well built and not damaged by the earthquake,” Hultman says.

“So far, plant redundancies and emergency operations have kept the integrity of the reactors intact, but the situation remains unclear and the events constitute a major nuclear accident in the history of nuclear power that will be measured against Three Mile Island and Chernobyl,” he adds.


“Overall, 55 new reactors are under construction in 12 countries. Hopes in the industry had been high that many more would follow. Failures at Fukushima will require a pause to allow public discourse in each country to catch up with the plans. Research underscores the public’s latent unease with nuclear energy, and suggests it will never be viewed as a ‘normal’ technology. Neither the images of the outer building at Fukushima 1 blowing up nor images of civilians being scanned for radiation exposure will be entirely forgotten in the public debate,” he says.

Japan: “Japanese utilities currently run 54 reactors that provide approximately 29 percent of the country’s electricity. Until recent events, Japan had plans to add another 14 reactors – primarily an advanced design of the type that is currently having problems at Fukushima. Unlike the improvements seen in many other countries, the industry in Japan has been plagued with repeated safety breaches and accused of sheltering an inadequately robust safety culture. It is almost certain that Japan will have to slow, if not stop, its program of nuclear expansion for the foreseeable future,” Hultman says.

Switzerland: Already decided to suspend plans for replacing two aging reactors.China: Already said its plans will not be derailed by the events in Japan. Germany: Temporarily halted plans to extend the life of their existing nuclear plants.


“For reasons of energy security or climate change, it may still be that nuclear power is the right option for some countries to pursue. But it is equally clear that the events in Japan will require an honest discussion about risks and requirements for redundancies. Nuclear power is simply a complex way to boil water to make steam to generate electricity. Some countries may decide that they will prefer to generate electricity with other technologies; some may even be willing to pay more for their electricity to avoid the risks of nuclear power. Other countries may choose to respond by reinvigorating their regulatory procedures. Regardless of individual regulatory and investment environments, events at Fukushima will complicate planning for nuclear expansion for the coming years in all countries,” Hultman says.

More UMD experts who can comment on aspects of the Japan earthquake are listed online: http://www.newsdesk.umd.edu/experts/hottopic.cfm?hotlist_id=192