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CWA # 515, 21 July 2021

Fukushima: A Decade after
The future of nuclear energy looks bleak

  Lokendra Sharma

The likely decline of nuclear energy will go hand in hand with the advent of renewables, with solar and wind power being the prime candidates for replacing carbon-emitting coal.

On 11 March 2021, a commemorative ceremony was held in Tokyo, Japan, to mark the ten years of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which killed close to 18,000 people. However, despite the human tragedy, what has struck with global public consciousness, is the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which was triggered by the same tsunami.   

The Fukushima disaster, the worst such since Chernobyl in 1986, changed the entire trajectory of nuclear energy. It not only shook Japan, but also reinforced the fears of nuclear sceptics worldwide, contributing to the decline of nuclear energy in the decade since the disaster. 

At Fukushima’s 10th anniversary, when rapid changes are occurring in the global energy sector, thanks to the imperative of climate change, it is pertinent to ask whether the decline of nuclear energy seen in the last decade is a temporary one (an interregnum) or whether it is a long term decline. And as both renewables and nuclear power are potential candidates in the race to replace highly polluting coal-based power plants, will the decline in nuclear power pave the way for the dawn of renewables? 

Following Fuksuhma, will the future of nuclear energy remain a dream, never to be realised? 

I
Cracks in the nuclear dream: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima

After it was discovered that self-sustaining chain reactions of nuclear fission could be a source of massive energy in the late 1930s, nuclear energy was thought of as a promising source for electricity generation. And, in consonance with this dream, nuclear power saw rapid expansion from the 1950s onwards. However, the nuclear dream suffered various hiccups, especially in the aftermath of nuclear accidents, which rekindled anti-nuclear protests. In the history of nuclear power, three such accidents stand out: Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011). 

First, the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident. On 28 March 1979, the reactor core of unit 2 of the TMI nuclear power plant (near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the US) suffered a partial meltdown due to a technical malfunction in the reactor cooling system. Even as the reactor core got damaged due to the meltdown, and there was some leakage of radioactive gases in days following the accident, there were limited adverse health impacts on the residents [1].  

Second, the Chernobyl accident. The most disastrous accident in nuclear history happened at Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union (present-day Ukraine). On 26 April 1986, due to a series of human and technical errors, there was a core meltdown in Unit 4 of the plant, followed by explosions and fire. Two plant workers were killed due to explosions, while 28 others died in subsequent weeks due to Acute Radiation Syndrome. About 5000 people developed thyroid cancer (with 15 fatalities), and 350,000 people were evacuated from the town of Pripyat and other surrounding areas [2].  

Third, and the most recent one, the Fukushima disaster. On 11 March 2011, a massive magnitude nine earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan, generating a tsunami that killed 18,000 people. This tsunami (17 metres high) slammed into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant operated by Tepco, causing core meltdowns in three (units 1,2 and 3) of the six reactors as the power supply and cooling system failed. In addition, explosions happened in units 1, 3 and 4 due to hydrogen accumulation, releasing huge amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere. This was the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986 and has been rated as Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) on par with the latter. In its aftermath, hundreds of thousands were evacuated in the 20-kilometre exclusion zone [3]. 

The Fukushima accident, however, is different from both the TMI and Chernobyl one. The TMI one was a relatively small-scale accident with only a partial meltdown of the reactor. And even though the Chernobyl one was far more disastrous and became part of Cold War politics, global know-how about the accident was limited thanks to the Soviet propaganda machine. The Fukushima disaster, which was as severe as the Chernobyl one (except there were no casualties), unfolded in front of the media. Thanks to the ICT revolution, reached all nooks and corners of the world. It reinforced fears of nuclear energy and shaped the perceptions about the dangers of nuclear accidents. 

II
Fallouts of Fukushima

The fallouts of the Fukushima accident can be looked at from two levels - national (Japan) and global level. At the national level, Japan has witnessed multi-faceted fallouts. Japan’s large nuclear power industry, which supplied one-third of electricity in the country pre-disaster, was greatly affected. In Fukushima’s aftermath, operations were suspended in 46 of the country’s 50 plus nuclear plants. As of today, nuclear power is less than 10 per cent in the electricity mix, with only nine reactors resuming operations. The post-disaster cleaning up of the Fukushima plant has been a challenging and complex undertaking, especially in the main reactor buildings where the core meltdown happened. The cleaning operations are still ongoing and can continue for the next 30 years or beyond [4]. The costs, however, have only spiked; Japan’s government estimated back in 2016 the cost to be around USD 200 billion [5]. 

The human and environmental fallout has been significant. Due to the hydrogen explosions at the power plant, a huge amount of radiation was released into the atmosphere. Radiation has also escaped through the water seeping into the ocean. Moreover, even after a decade, close to 40,000 people remain displaced [6]. 

Not just Japan, but the nuclear industry faced a downturn globally as strong anti-nuclear sentiment spread accompanied by numerous protests across the world. Many countries, especially in Europe, abandoned their nuclear energy plans. Germany announced a few months after the disaster to phase out its nuclear power plants by 2022; Belgium decided to phase out nuclear by 2025; Italy’s plan to revive nuclear energy in the country failed; Spain and Switzerland decided to not build any new nuclear plants. Sixty-five reactors have either shut down or have not got operational life extension, between 2011 and 2020, according to the IAEA. This resulted in a loss of 48 GWe nuclear capacity globally [7]. 

III
Nuclear versus renewables debate

Will this declining trend continue for nuclear power? And if so, which energy source will take the position of nuclear? Will renewables fill the cracks in the nuclear dream? Before answering these questions, it is useful to situate nuclear energy in the debate of climate change and to highlight the respective advantages (and disadvantages) of nuclear and renewables, both of which are potential candidates for displacing carbon-emitting coal from the global energy basket. 

With multiple conferences, agreements (including the Paris climate deal of 2015) and civil society protests over the last three decades, climate change has claimed the top spot in issues of global concern. And as the international community attempts to address this issue with mitigative and adaptive measures, cutting down on emissions has become the primary focus. 

Coal-based power generation contributes the most to emissions in the electricity sector globally. In order to reduce carbon footprint, therefore, countries are clamping down on coal and looking for its alternatives. And, in this race for alternative, there are two potential candidates: nuclear and renewables. Both have their sets of advantages and disadvantages. 

First, nuclear energy. Its biggest advantage is that it offers reliable baseload power generation with minimum emissions. However, it has several issues - radiation, nuclear accidents, waste disposal and most importantly, proliferation risks. The technologies involved in nuclear power generation are dual-use; they can be used to make nuclear weapons too. And that, from a disarmament perspective, makes the world a less safe place.

Second, renewables, which consist of various sources, mainly solar and wind. Their biggest advantage is that they are the clean and safe sources of unlimited energy (hence the word renewable). Unlike nuclear, which is still dependent on the supplies of limited uranium reserves, solar and wind draw from sunlight and blowing wind, which is potentially unending. Their biggest drawback, however, is that they are intermittent sources of power supply; they cannot be relied upon to supply baseload power for any economy. For example, a solar plant only generates electricity when it is sunny, and a wind plant only generates electricity when winds are blowing beyond some threshold speed. Interrelated is the grid integration challenges that solar and wind pose. As solar and wind only generate electricity intermittently, and as there is a lack of any efficient industrial-scale battery storage technology, renewables are given preference in the grid whenever they generate electricity. This poses challenges for the baseload suppliers of electricity, coal and nuclear plants, to rapidly ramp down and ramp up their power generation, incurring losses in the process. Moreover, these external costs associated with renewables are not factored into the per unit electricity cost, which artificially remains low. Other challenges include large land requirements and low plant load factors [8]. 

Nevertheless, renewables score better in the ‘clean energy versus safe energy debate’, because they are thought to be clean as well as safe compared to nuclear which is clean but not safe. However, this argument does not stand at a closer examination; renewables are not entirely clean, and nuclear is not entirely unsafe. Making solar panels and wind turbines is very resource-intensive. Photovoltaic (PV) solar systems, in particular, do not cause pollution of significance during their operational lifetime; they do have a considerable carbon footprint (and other environmental fallouts, including water pollution) during their manufacturing and installation process [9]. The same, however, is also true of nuclear plants, as their establishment is also resource-intensive.  

The issues of radiation and accidents have often been cited to dismiss nuclear energy as unsafe. But, background radiation in the environment is much more than that resulting from any nuclear power plant [10]. In fact, nuclear energy prevents more deaths than it is a cause for. A study found that “global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths” between 1971 and 2009 [11]. Even in the Fukushima disaster, only a single death (of a Fukushima worker, due to radiation exposure) could be attributed to the disaster and its fallouts (while not discounting that there could possibly be unaccounted fatalities and adverse health impacts) [12]. In fact, nuclear power plants have elaborate safety measures in place, with numerous triple redundancies. 

Given all these factors, nuclear is better suited to replace coal as a baseload energy supplier provided enough uranium metal could be salvaged from the natural deposits globally. The only significant problem that would arise, as highlighted before, is the proliferation risk. The spread of nuclear energy globally, both vertical and horizontal, does not augur well for a disarmed world given its dual-use nature.

IV
The dawn of renewables

The climate change imperative is such that, ideally, the international community cannot afford an either-or choice. Countries need to act fast to replace coal power plants with all available (and relatively) clean sources of energy, be it nuclear or renewables. Countries need to have a diversified energy basket, with the exact share of different sources being decided by national circumstances (such as resources availability, geography and the economics of power production). 

But, despite the suitability of such a mixed approach, the winners in the renewables-nuclear race are going to be decided by other factors, including current trends in the energy sector set in motion by the Fukushima disaster and technological advances in the renewable sector. There are three factors that will propel the dawn of renewables and the descension of nuclear energy.

First, the global public opinion, as highlighted before, remains hostile to nuclear power generation. In fact, local communities have mounted resistance at the sites of nuclear power plants, delaying their establishment and increasing associated costs. At the same time, public opinion is very favourable to renewable energy sources. 

Second, rapid innovations happening in the renewable sector, which have the potential of addressing the drawbacks associated with renewable power sources. This includes higher efficiency of solar cells and wind turbines and better battery storage technology. Solutions have also been advanced to meet the intermittency problem of renewables. Solar and wind work well when they are scattered across a landmass, say a wider region and are interconnected through a larger grid. 

Third, countries are betting big on renewables. Many countries, especially in Europe, have announced an ambitious green energy push. The global trend for the energy sector, post-Fukushima, shows a clear decline of nuclear energy and the rise of renewables. This trend would be difficult to reverse given the two factors pointed out above. 

 

Conclusion

In terms of the future of nuclear energy, descension is more likely than an interregnum. The descension of nuclear energy will go hand in hand with the dawn of renewable one, with solar and wind power being the prime candidates for replacing carbon-emitting coal. 

Even as the future of nuclear energy is bleak at the global level, some countries, especially India and China, will continue to have ambitious nuclear power programmes. This is due to their peculiar developmental needs and resource scarcity. India in particular has a three-stage programme which ultimately seeks to exploit thorium reserves, which by one estimate, are enough to meet India’s energy needs for next century and beyond [13]. However, it is unlikely India will be able to scale up its nuclear programme rapidly given the perennial delays and complex technical challenges in utilizing thorium. 

Notwithstanding the factors propelling the march of renewables, it is possible that the decline of nuclear can be stemmed, and even reversed into a stellar rise, if thorium utilization becomes scalable and fusion technology becomes economic and feasible. Unless that happens, this century will be defined by renewables, the way last century was defined by coal and oil. 

References

[1] “Three Mile Island Accident”, World Nuclear Association, March 2020, available at:https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/three-mile-island-accident.aspx (last accessed on 12 April 2021)

[2] “Chernobyl Accident 1986”, World Nuclear Association, April 2020, available at: https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx (last accessed on 13 April 2021)

[3] “Fukushima Daiichi Accident”, World Nuclear Association, March 2021, available at:https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/fukushima-daiichi-accident.aspx (last accessed on 13 April 2021)

[4] Dennis Normile, “Why cleaning up Fukushima’s damaged reactors will take another 30 years”, Science Magazine, 4 March 2021, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abh3449 

[5] Mayumi Negishi, “Japan Raises Estimate for 2011 Nuclear Accident to $200 Billion”, Wall Street Journal, 9 December 2016, available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/japan-raises-estimate-for-2011-nuclear-accident-to-200-billion-1481270326 (last accessed on 14 April 2021)

[6] Arata Yamamoto and Adela Suliman, “Fukushima: Japan mourns victims of earthquake and nuclear disaster 10 years on”, NBC News, 11 March 2021, available at:https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/fukushima-japan-mourns-victims-earthquake-nuclear-disaster-ten-years-n1260596  (last accessed on 14 April 2021)

[7] Henri Paillere and Jeffrey Donovan, “Nuclear Power 10 Years After Fukushima: The Long Road Back”, IAEA, 11 March 2021, available at: https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/nuclear-power-10-years-after-fukushima-the-long-road-back  (last accessed on 14 April 2021)

[8] Saurav Jha, The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power (HarperCollins, 2010)

[9] Muhammad Tawalbeh, AmaniAl-Othman, Feras Kafiah, Emad Abdelsalam, Fares Almomani and Malek Alkasrawie, “Environmental impacts of solar photovoltaic systems: A critical review of recent progress and future outlook”, Science of The Total Environment, Vol 759, No. 143528, 2021, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.143528   

[10] Abel J. Gonzalez and Jeanne Anderer, “Radiation versus radiation: Nuclear energy in perspective”, IAEA Bulletin, 1989, pp. 21-31, available at: https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/publications/magazines/bulletin/bull31-2/31205642131.pdf 

[11] Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen, “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power” Environmental science & technology, Vol 47, No 9, 2013, pp. 4889-4895, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/es3051197 

[12] Eli Meixler, “Japan Acknowledges the First Radiation-Linked Death From the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster”, Time, 5 September 2018, available at: https://time.com/5388178/japan-first-fukushima-radiation-death/  (last accessed on 15 April 2021)

[13] “Strategy for Nuclear Energy”, Bhabha Atomic Research Center, available at: http://www.barc.gov.in/about/anushakti_sne.html (last accessed on 15 April 2021) 


Lokendra Sharma is a PhD Scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru. He is currently researching in the field of Technology and International Relations. He is also interested in nuclear issues, disarmament and arms control. Email: lokendra.sharma279@gmail.com 

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