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Nuclear Power Safety Concerns

Author: Toni Johnson
Updated: September 23, 2011

Introduction

The March 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami that severely damaged the Fukushima Daiichi power plant has dampened what had been a renewed interest in nuclear power twenty-five years after the explosion at Chernobyl in northern Ukraine. That interest was sparked by rising energy demands in emerging markets and developing nations as well as the need to reduce use of fossil fuels in response to climate change, making nuclear more attractive though less competitive than other types of power (PDF). But the 2011Fukushima incident has led to new scrutiny of plant safety regulations and emergency measures, and to questions about reactor design and how to deal with spent nuclear fuel. Still, while experts say Fukushima is likely to have some impact on nuclear power going forward, it is unlikely to be as disruptive for the industry as Chernobyl.

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The Nuclear Renaissance

In 1986, an explosion at a reactor (Guardian) at Chernobyl in Ukraine spewed radiation enough for four hundred Hiroshima-sized bombs. As a result, plans for new plants were shelved across the globe and many politicians, particularly in Europe, pushed to phase out nuclear power. That changed over the last decade, though, with a renewed interest in nuclear power. Two factors helped create this so-called "nuclear renaissance"--emerging-market energy demand and climate change. Many countries with growing economies and middle classes are looking at ways to access reliable and diverse electricity production. With fossil fuel use increasingly less attractive because of climate change, nuclear energy--which has a very small carbon footprint--has gained new attention.

Four hundred-forty reactors are operating worldwide, representing about 14 percent of global electricity generation. Sixty power plants are under construction, and many older plants slated to be decommissioned may be given new operating licenses. Overall, at least sixty countries that currently do not have it have expressed interest in pursuing nuclear power.

While most of the world's nuclear power generation is in Europe and the United States, much of the new nuclear power coming online in the next decade will be in Asian emerging markets, particularly China and India. Nearly half of all reactors under construction are being built in China, which plans to expand its output from nearly eleven gigawatts (GW) of power to eighty GW by 2020. India hopes to expand its nuclear capacity to at least twenty GW by 2020, up from less than four today.

Nineteen new reactors also are under construction in Europe as of January 2011. Almost all are in Russia, with a handful in Bulgaria, Ukraine, and the Slovakian Republic. Only Finland is constructing a new plant in Western Europe. However, prior to Fukushima, some Western European governments were reconsidering plans to phase out nuclear-power plants. With coal increasingly falling into disfavor because of climate change, many EU countries are worried that reducing nuclear power use would lead to more dependence on natural gas imports--especially from Russia.

Only one new reactor is being constructed in the United States, another two are expected to break ground soon, and a little over two dozen more have made it to the planning stages.

A growing number of climate advocates argue that nuclear power could act as a stop-gap, emissions-free technology to supplement growing renewable energy production. Some of these advocates continue to defend the need for nuclear after the Fukushima accident. But other environmental advocates, such as U.S.-based Public Citizen and Greenpeace, say nuclear power is not the answer to climate change even short term. "The nuclear industry has seized on the problem of climate change to try to revive its dying industry," says Greenpeace International (PDF). "[B]ut the reality is that wasting yet more time and money pursuing the nuclear nightmare would be too late, too expensive, too risky."

Nuclear Energy Guide

Many supporters and critics say nuclear power's biggest impediment is economic. Projects are expensive and slow-developing, with a number of basic logistical hurdles that make them less competitive than other types of energy, even with the inclusion of a carbon price. Nuclear expert Charles Ferguson notes that when U.S. utilities even mention interest in nuclear power they face having their stocks downgraded. "Wall Street doesn't want to take the risk," says anti-nuclear advocate Michael Marriotte.

The Fallout from Fukushima

Since Chernobyl, the absence of high-profile accidents and concerns about global warming has helped soften attitudes on nuclear power. CFR's 2009 world opinion project found significant support for nuclear power in many countries as a means of energy diversification, though concerns about nuclear safety remained high. U.S. polls also showed growing support for nuclear. But polling since the Fukushima incident has shown support has diminished around the world--though some experts say the reaction is more muted than following Chernobyl.

A number of experts, including Nathan Hultman, a climate policy expert at the Brookings Institution, say the Fukushima incident will likely have different impacts in different parts of the world. For example, Germany, the largest importer of Russian gas, has shut down seven reactors since Fukushima. And the country's largely unpopular plans to extend the life of other reactors past 2020 has been stopped all together. Italy renewed its moratorium on nuclear power, and other EU countries are reviewing their future plans for nuclear power. Across the world, countries including the United States and China also have begun new safety evaluations of their plants to see how well they operate in situations involving issues such as earthquakes, terror attacks, flooding, and loss of power.

"Regardless of individual regulatory and investment environments, events at Fukushima will complicate planning for nuclear expansion for the coming years in all countries," writes Hultman. "Fukushima simply 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."

In September 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency endorsed an action plan (PDF) on nuclear safety, which includes new voluntary measures to help avoid an accident similar to Fukushima. The plan calls on governments to immediately begin safety assessments of existing plants and allow IAEA inspectors access to plants. The plan also calls for countries to work toward better international liability regimes. Some countries, such as Germany, France, and Canada, were unhappy the plan did not contain stricter measures (Reuters) that mandated IAEA inspections. However, other countries, such as the United States, India and China, stressed that the power to ensure safety should remain in the hands of national authorities.

Nuclear Safety Concerns

A number of experts have said that the Fukushima accident will not be as bad as Chernobyl, because the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima were very different. Chernobyl involved a huge explosion, which spewed radioactive debris high into the air, while Fukushima, so far, has involved multiple reactors as well as spent fuel pools, leaks of radioactive coolant and steam, and smaller explosions that have damaged reactor containment.

The number of related deaths (Guardian) from Chernobyl remains in dispute, ranging from as low as four thousand to as high as five hundred thousand. Other health effects may include high instances of infant mortality and more than six thousand cases of thyroid cancer in children and adolescents according to a 2008 UN report. Environmental damage in nearby areas and, in some cases, as far away as Britain persists. CFR's Laurie Garrett notes that in contrast to Chernobyl, Japanese authorities quickly distributed iodine tablets, which help protect the thyroid against radiation. The total number of people harmed by the Fukushima accident is unknown, but a number of workers at the plant have received high levels of radiation exposure and radiation is already contaminating the food and water supplies in surrounding areas.

Many nuclear experts say Chernobyl served as a wakeup call within the nuclear industry. The World Association of Nuclear Operators was established shortly after to serve as the industry's self-policing watchdog and write confidential safety reviews on nuclear plants. Richard Meserve, head of the International Working Group on Nuclear Safety, noted in a 2010 letter (PDF) to the International Atomic Energy Agency: "Every user of nuclear power is hostage to the safety performance of other users because of the adverse consequences that would arise if there were a nuclear accident anywhere."

According the World Nuclear Association, there have been eleven "serious nuclear reactor accidents" since the inception of nuclear power, with six occurring at commercial reactors between 1975 and 2011. These accidents happened with few or no immediate deaths--comparatively coal, gas, hydroelectric, and oil accidents can result in hundreds of deaths per year, the association notes. Other analysis, such as a 2010 Swedish study (PDF) and one from ProPublica, points out that nuclear power generation per watt is responsible for fewer deaths than other types of power--and those health effects do not include potential impacts from climate change, which are significant for fossil fuels.

Still, nuclear power must address a significant safety issues, such as:

Meltdowns and Accidents. Human error is considered largely responsible for the 1979 Three-Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, and design flaws triggered the Chernobyl explosion. Since these accidents, the World Nuclear Association says the Western industry has employed "a defense-in-depth approach," with multiple safety systems, including: "high-quality" design and construction; comprehensive monitoring and regular testing; and redundant systems to prevent significant radioactive releases. Overall, the industry argues it has worked hard to make nuclear power safe, and newer reactors have safety features that overcome some of the problems that led to radiation releases at Fukushima and Chernobyl, including better shielding and passive cooling systems.

But new reactor types still face questions--such as how well they withstand earthquakes--and industry assurances about new reactors don't address concerns about older reactors. In the United States, many of these have been relicensed or are in the process of being relicensed after forty years of operation (NYT). Some environmental advocates want all twenty-three Mark I (first generation) boiling water reactors--the same type as those that failed in the Fukushima accident--permanently decommissioned because of inherent design flaws--including placement of the spent fuel rods and strength of the reactor containment.

Other advocates argue that human error makes a future meltdown possible no matter how well a plant is designed. A 2011 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S.-based environmental group, found that some of the fourteen "near-misses" occurred at U.S. nuclear plants in 2010 in part because of inadequate training, faulty maintenance, and failure to investigate problems thoroughly. And some nuclear experts question the degree of safety measures employed at plants.

Nuclear Waste. Short- and long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel has been a challenge for the industry and policymakers. Spent fuel, if not disposed of properly, could contaminate water supplies or be used by terrorists to create a dirty bomb. In the short-term, spent fuel is stored in pools on-site--but they only need to stay there a few months until they are cool enough to move to dry storage (either on site or in a long-term storage facility). Still, at some plants, fuel rods are packed in pools in numbers well above design specifications and stay in the pools long after they are ready to be moved (R&D). Fukushima revived U.S. discussion (Beacon) about plans for a long-term storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada that had been scrapped. Meanwhile, advocates say utilities should be required to move spent fuel to hardened, dry-cask storage as soon as possible.

Efforts to reprocess nuclear waste are expensive and come with associated environmental and security risks. Yet a growing number of countries--including Japan and Russia--have begun fuel recycling projects.

Natural Disasters. The earthquake and tsunami that damaged the Fukushima plant has some questioning the sensibility of locating plants in seismically active regions, with some environmental advocates calling for new seismic studies before any older plants are relicensed. In addition, there are concerns about other types of disasters such as tornados and hurricanes. One climate advocate warns that sea level rise resulting from climate change also needs to taken into consideration.

Security Issues. Most countries either pursuing nuclear power or currently using it have signed on to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and have agreed to comply with rules that ensure that they will not use nuclear technologies toward making weapons. However, any country with nuclear technology is considered a proliferation risk. Also after 9/11, concerns arose over the security of 104 U.S. nuclear plants, particularly Indian Point, located thirty miles north of New York City. However, experts maintain the facilities are relatively safe.

Editor's Note: This Backgrounder was formerly entitled "Chernobyl, Nuclear Power, and Foreign Policy."

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