The knives are out for the nuclear power industry following the catastrophic events at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. The industry will always attract brickbats, but talk of the end of days for nuclear power is wide of the mark.

No amount of public relations spin can alter the fact: the disaster which struck the Fukushima Daiichi plant following an earthquake and subsequent tsunami was an absolute catastrophe for Japan and the nuclear power industry.

On March 11, Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi plant was hit by an earthquake of a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale and took a battering from a subsequent tsunami.

When the earthquake struck, all six of the boiling water reactors shut down as expected but the tsunami knocked out the back-up power supply essential to maintain reactor cooling. This set in train a chain of events which, as PEi went to press, caused the worst nuclear power accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

The knives are now being sharpened for the nuclear power industry. After Fukushima, public approval for nuclear power has reached a low not seen since 1986 and short-term prospects appear bleak.

Environmentalists were out in force to call for nuclear plants to be shut down. Politicians were quick to see the votes to be gained from being tough on nuclear power. Almost instantly, Switzerland placed a moratorium on plans to replace its fleet of reactors.

Chancellor Angela Merkel firstly delayed plans to extend the lifetimes of Germany’s reactors and then closed seven reactors built prior to 1980. Any dim flickers of hope that Germany would ever commence a programme of new build nuclear have surely now been extinguished.

Italy voted to close down its nuclear plants in 1987 following the Chernobyl incident. Ironically there is another nuclear referendum scheduled in June, planned well before Fukushima, and the accident seems certain to boost voter turnout for a national poll on Enel’s plans to build four of Areva’s EPR reactors.

The US nuclear industry, home to several boiling water reactors of similar design to the ill-fated Fukushima Daiichi plant, will be under pressure to fortify its aging fleet, particularly on the West Coast. The stuttering new build programme, which even before Fukushima had been rather half-hearted, may now grind to a halt due to a lack of political will to support it.

Southeast Asia, like Japan, is a region prone to geological instability where environmentalism is strong. Politicians in ecologically sensitive nations like Malaysia, which has plans to build two 1000 MW reactors by 2021, may now stand to gain greatly by opposing nuclear power in general elections, thus killing off new build plans.

Even authoritarian China, which tends to mould public opinion rather than follow it, announced that it would suspend approving new nuclear projects until new safety rules are ready. These measures may be mere politicking: many governments see the value of nuclear power and are playing for time while the understandable ‘moral panic’ subsides.

Reactor vendors will be under pressure to re-evaluate their latest, Generation III designs. Some of these reactors promise passive safety systems in the event of a reactor shutdown to keep the cooling system pumps operating. In reality, however, these reactors will still require back-up power to avoid the potential for core failure.

For utilities seeking to invest in nuclear there will, no doubt, be second thoughts. US utilities often talk about “betting the firm” to build nuclear plants. Costs for nuclear now seem certain to rise. The risks of a catastrophe which writes off valuable assets will have to be reconsidered, and the industry will watch with interest for any potential liability claims from irradiated persons in Japan.

Nuclear power stakeholders I spoke to immediately after the event were pretty angry that media coverage of Japan’s largest on-record earthquake initially focused on the Fukushima crisis and not the far greater death and devastation caused by the tsunami.

This point of view is understandable, but it is easy to see why television news, radio bulletins and newspapers chose to lead with the Fukushima incident. As horrific and deadly as they are, humans find it easier to comprehend the destructive waves of a tsunami than malfunctioning nuclear reactors.

Nuclear physics is complex. Radiation is invisible. Sensational headlines about ‘meltdowns’ and ‘fallout’ play to the layman’s deep, almost irrational fears about nuclear plants going south.

Coal plants, for example, throw far more radiation into the air than nuclear reactors, and coal mining kills and injures thousands every year. The explosion of the 1984 Union Carbide chemical works in Bhopal, India was more hazardous to human health and killed several thousands more than the Chernobyl accident two years later, yet it is the latter which no one forgets.

Nuclear power remains a mystery to most people. Despite its many advantages, poor PR has always blighted the nuclear power industry. Perhaps it always will. Nevertheless, the industry has done too little to put across the meticulously high safety standards to which nuclear plants adhere and the strong record of recent years.

Too late now. Just as the talk of a global nuclear renaissance was rapidly becoming reality, the industry has taken a huge blow that could set it back by several years. There can be no worse PR for nuclear power than live television images of not one, not two, but three reactor buildings exploding and mushroom clouds of smoke billowing into a clear blue Japanese sky.

It would be easy to abandon nuclear power. For most countries, however, that would be a mistake. Most nations do not suffer earthquakes and tsunamis on the scale of Japan and modern reactor technology promises greater safety. Nuclear power remains the most credible source of low-carbon generation offering baseload power and energy security.

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