The crisis at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, may have lasting repercussions for the whole power production industry. Future projects for building new nuclear plants will surely come under greater scrutiny.
A satellite image of Japan showing damage after an earthquake and tsunami at the Dai Ichi Power Plant. Photo: DigitalGlobe-Imagery / Flickr.com (Creative Commons).
The series of events, that followed the destructive earthquake and tsunami in Japan last week, has led to what will surely be viewed as one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. The combined effect of the two natural disasters made the four reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant extremely vulnerable to devastating accidents.
The first disaster was seen on Saturday 12 March when the roof and walls of reactor number one were blown away in an explosion. Nuclear cores generate large amounts of heat even when not operational, and need to be cooled continuously. The first explosion was most likely a result of rising pressure inside the building.
The situation seemed to be under control momentarily as engineers desperately tried to cool down the cores by pumping seawater into the plants. In a sudden turn of events, however, the water levels dwindled exposing the fuel rods in reactor number two, which led to a very volatile situation that could result in a full meltdown.
The exact details of the ensuing events have only been guessed at. Radiation levels have been on the rise, and there have been two subsequent explosions and a fire, both of unclear causes. All of the plant’s four reactors are in a critical state, as of now.
The incident is likely to have lasting ramifications on the global energy industry. At the time, it was easy to dismiss the Chernobyl disaster as a consequence of a fading communist society, but the world will now have to come to terms with the fact that a nuclear catastrophe is just as possible in the western world. Despite having been well prepared for an earthquake, the Fukushima plant simply wasn’t strong enough to withstand two substantial disruptions.
In the future, of course, nuclear power plant models will take into account the flaws and weaknesses exposed by what happened in Fukushima. Nuclear energy production has been increasing, with countries like India looking to vastly expand their share. According to the Economic Times, India is planning on increasing its nuclear energy production tenfold in the next twenty years.
It is easy to dismiss the events in Japan as unique: similar earthquakes are extremely rare, especially when it comes to other parts of the world. The consequences, however, are so severe, that these wholly unpredictable events should somehow be taken into account. The duration of the effects of a nuclear catastrophe, like the one in Chernobyl, are measured in decades.
The episode may also have an impact on the whole energy industry: the rising costs of fossil fuels since the beginning of the century, and the implementation of greenhouse gas emission limits will not only drive the world towards a greener future, but also a more expensive one, as the costs of producing energy are on the rise.
Independent of how the events in Fukushima unfold, the energy industry will most likely be forced to consider alternate energy sources, and focus on creating more sustainable approaches to energy production.
Citizens of Japan and the entire world will soon be asking themselves, how close to a nuclear facility are they prepared to live. Ten kilometres? One hundred kilometres? The answers will influence the future of nuclear energy production.