Newswise — COLLEGE PARK, Md. - The situation at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility has become increasingly serious with the growing possibility of a complete meltdown, says University of Maryland energy policy expert Nathan Hultman.

A fire in a spent fuel storage pool likely released serious levels of radiation, and the International Atomic Energy Agency reports possible damage to one of the containment vessels at Fukushima, he says. Dangerous radiation levels were measured at the plant and officials have advised 140,00 people outside the immediate evacuation area to shelter in place.

"It now appears the fire has been extinguished, but damage to the nuclear fuel containment potentially is a very serious problem that complicates efforts to prevent a total meltdown, says Hultman a public policy professor at the University of Maryland.

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.

RENEWED NUCLEAR DEBATE: "The events at Fukushima will complicate planning for nuclear expansion in all countries in coming years," Hultman says.

"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. 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.

INTERNATIONAL IMPACT: "Overall, 55 new reactors are under construction in 12 countries. Hopes in the industry had been high that many more would follow.

"Research underscores the public's latent unease with nuclear energy, and suggests it will never be viewed as a 'normal' technology. The images and concerns, even if a complete meltdown is avoided, cannot be entirely forgotten in future 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," 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.

FRAMING THE DEBATE: "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: