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Japan's Nuclear Tremors After Quake

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: March 14, 2011

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The devastation wreaked by Japan's worst-ever earthquake and the accompanying tsunami continues to widen. Officials put the death toll at thirty-five hundred (UPI), while some reports say more than ten thousand have died (AP) in Miyagi prefecture alone. Tens of thousands of people remain unaccounted for, and the number of casualties is expected to rise, as large numbers are believed buried under rubble. Millions of survivors struggle without electricity, food, and drinking water. Fears of a nuclear meltdown from reactors damaged by the quake prompted Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan to declare the disaster the country's "most severe crisis" (BBC) since World War II.

The escalating nuclear crisis follows explosions at two reactors at the earthquake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, 170 miles north of Tokyo. Technicians are trying to stabilize a third reactor (BBC) at the plant. There are fears that reactors could experience full meltdowns (NYT) if operators are unable to establish control, which could release catastrophic amounts of radiation. At a nearby nuclear plant, Daini, three more reactors lost their cooling systems, and thousands of residents in the area were evacuated. On Sunday, Japan's nuclear energy agency declared a state of emergency at a third nuclear facility (BBC), at Onagawa, after higher-than-permitted radiation levels were recorded there. The Japanese authorities admitted that radiation levels near the Daiichi plant at one point exceeded legal safety limits, raising the specter of potential health problems (WashPost). It isn't yet clear how much radiation has leaked (CBS) and might still escape from the Daiichi plant. Some analysts say public health risks from Japan's nuclear plants (Reuters) remain "quite low." But others suggest radioactive releases of steam from the crippled plants (NYT) could go on for weeks or even months.

The unfolding nuclear crisis will shake public confidence in the safety of nuclear power both in Japan and abroad, say experts. With fifty-four operating nuclear reactors, Japan is the third-largest nuclear power generator in the world behind the United States and France, and the Japanese government plans to increase nuclear's share of total electricity generation from the current 30 percent to 50 percent by 2030. Keiji Takeuchi of the Asahi Shimbun writes the latest crisis has forced the need to reevaluate how much a quake-prone Japan can count on nuclear energy. Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, recommends Japan ramp up its use of renewable energy resources (ForeignPolicy), in particular geothermal power. "Renewable sources could provide about 67 percent of Japan's electricity by 2050 if the government would implement effective policies," he says.

Japan will face other, longer-term political and economic costs of this disaster. Even before the disaster struck, Japan's fragile government was reeling from corruption scandals, pressures of an aging society, and clashes over budget as the government struggles to reduce its public debt, which is double the country's GDP. Need to finance public works in the disaster-affected areas will put a further strain on the government budget. Rising oil prices and uncertain export demand add to risks of economic recovery.†

While the economic costs of the disaster remain difficult to predict, largely due to uncertain consequences from overheating nuclear reactors (Economist), analysts remain cautious on what the economic impact on the country (Reuters) might be. Some predict an initial decline in GDP growth rate but expect economic activity--driven by reconstruction--to rise. Peter Tasker, a Tokyo-based analyst with Arcus Research, writes "the economic impact on a country as wealthy as Japan is likely to be minimal" (FT).

Japan has received offers of aid from scores of countries (VOA). Both South Korean and U.S. military teams are on the ground to offer assistance. Japan was better prepared than most countries (NPR) to deal with the earthquake and tsunami. Yet, the extent of devastation caused there, some experts say, serves as a reminder of how countries remain vulnerable to such calamities on a large scale. Earthquake and tsunami-prone countries need to develop their own early warning systems, writes Syed Fattahul Alim of the Daily Star. Also, these countries should develop infrastructures "including strongly built tsunami shelters, especially for the section of the population living in the coastal areas," he adds.

Additional Analysis:

Cristine Russell of the Atlantic writes the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, and the government's clumsy response, both resemble the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in the United States.

William Tucker, author of a book on nuclear power, argues that even if a meltdown takes place in Japan, it will not be a disaster for the general public (WSJ), and whatever steam releases occur will have a negligible impact.

Simon Tisdall of the Guardian examines whether Japan's leadership is up to the task of delivering after the tsunami.

Background:

This CFR multimedia interactive on Nuclear Energy analyzes the benefits, risks, and limits of nuclear power.

This Washington Post graphic explains how the nuclear emergency unfolded and how bad the crisis is.

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