The reactors at Fukushima Daiichi are sited directly on the shore, about 50 kilometers from the city of Sendai, which was devastated in the earthquake. Almost all of Japan's 55 nuclear power plants are built near the ocean, because they need a reliable source of large amounts of cooling water to operate. But this is precisely what makes them so vulnerable to tsunamis.
After the massive Indian Ocean tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2004, nuclear regulators and plant operators recognized the risks for nuclear power plants. That tsunami flooded the cooling pumps for a reactor at India's Madras Atomic Power Station, but operators managed to shut down the reactor just in time to avert an accident. The wave also flooded a nearby construction site for a breeder reactor, where the Indians also intend to produce the explosive material plutonium. But apparently the Indian operators didn't learn much from the 2004 tsunami. After the site had been drained, they continued to build the reactor in the same spot.
On a more positive note, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) established the International Seismic Safety Centre two years ago. The center will serve as a forum for experts to exchange information and develop the highest possible standards. Japan is seen as one of the most active member nations, and for good reason. This isn't the first time an earthquake has threatened the safety of Japanese nuclear power plants. In 2007, for example, a magnitude 6.8 quake shook Japan's west coast. The epicenter was only 16 kilometers from Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, a seven-reactor complex and the world's largest nuclear power plant. Later it was revealed that one of the control rods had become jammed.
Bigger than Expected
The 2007 earthquake was also much more powerful than the engineers had expected. In fact, it was two-and-a-half times as powerful a quake as the reactor was designed to withstand. Today it is back in operation after having been upgraded. The same operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), owns both Fukushima and Kashiwazaki-Kariwa.
Many nuclear experts are leery of TEPCO, partly because of its history. A scandal shook public confidence in the company 10 years ago, when it was discovered that TEPCO managers had doctored reports on leak tests performed during safety inspections in their nuclear power plants.
As a result of the TEPCO scandal, Japanese citizens have become increasingly mistrustful of their government and the nuclear industry. Japan generates about a third of its electricity with nuclear power and is about as dependent on reactors as France.
After the 2007 quake, the operators of a fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho-Mura were required to upgrade the complex, which was undergoing test operations at the time. The upgrade requirements virtually doubled the cost of the project, bringing it to a total of more than $20 billion -- an indication of how expensive earthquake safety can be.
After last week's tsunami, there was also a power failure at the Rokkasho nuclear facilities, and in the hours following the quake the plant's safety apparently depended entirely on the operation of diesel generators.
Whether the incidents in Fukushima will affect the boom in the construction of nuclear power plants in Asia remains to be seen. Nuclear power is currently undergoing a worldwide resurgence that would have been unthinkable in the years immediately after Chernobyl.
Asia's rapidly growing economies, China, South Korea and India, as well as Russia and the United States, are banking on electricity from nuclear power once again. The renaissance is a result of both the enormous thirst for energy in the emerging economies and the debate over the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.
According to the IAEA, 29 countries currently operate 442 reactors, producing a total of 375 gigawatts of electricity. Another 65 plants are now under construction worldwide. Now that many believe that climate change has replaced nuclear disaster as the most significant threat to mankind, nuclear technology, with its low CO2 emissions, is gaining ground once again.
Sweden, for example, was long seen as setting an example of how to phase out nuclear energy. In the middle of last year, however, the Swedish parliament reversed a 30-year-old decision to move away from nuclear power. The new legislation could allow up to 10 new plants to be built, replacing the aging Forsmark, Ringhals and Oskarshamn plants.
In the United States, no applications to build new reactors were filed for three decades. Last year, President Barack Obama made billions in federal loan guarantees available for two planned complexes in Georgia. A project in South Carolina is already under construction.
China has 27 nuclear construction sites, while Russia is currently building 11 new reactors. Moscow even has plans to build small, floating reactors to supply electricity in the Russian Arctic.
End of the Dream of Cheap Energy
Most of all, however, more and more emerging economies, and even developing nations, are interested in nuclear technology. "We expect between 10 to 25 new countries to bring their first nuclear power plant online by 2030," IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has said. According to Amano, a total of 65 countries, including 21 in Africa alone, have shown interest in the technology.
"Current forecasts suggest the world will see an increase in global energy consumption of over 50 percent by 2030," states an IAEA brochure with the telling title: "Considerations to Launch a Nuclear Power Program." According to the brochure, nuclear power plants can help ensure "access to affordable energy in many parts of the world."
The current situation suggests that the hopes of the nuclear lobby will be dashed. The fact that a nuclear disaster could occur in the land of robots and electric cars marks a turning point in the history of the technology.
There are metonyms for all of the accidents of the nuclear age, place names that have become symbols. Three Mile Island is one of them and so, of course, is Chernobyl.
There is no question that the name Fukushima will take on a similar significance. Fukushima will likely symbolize the end of the dream of manageable nuclear energy -- and the realization that we do not have this form of energy under control.
RALF BESTE, PHILIP BETHGE, KLAUS BRINKBÄUMER, DIRK KURBJUWEIT, CORDULA MEYER, RENÉ PFISTER, OLAF STAMPF, THILO THIELKE, WIELAND WAGNER
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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