Late last week, I was doing background research for a possible story on the future of nuclear energy. Has global warming tipped the risk-benefit scales in nuclear's favor? Can any of the next-generation reactor designs claim to be truly accident-proof--and terrorist-proof? Are we any closer to solving the waste problem?
The Fukushima Daiichi power plant, photographed in 2002. Via the Wikimedia Commons.
This week, those questions feel a lot less hypothetical. The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on Friday damaged multiple reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 150 miles from Tokyo; since then, explosions and fires at the plant have released radiation to the atmosphere. With cooling pumps out of order, workers are struggling to keep the reactors cool using seawater, which requires venting radioactive steam. Tens of thousands of people living nearby the plant have been evacuated, and more than one hundred thousand in a larger danger zone are being asked to confine themselves to their homes. As the New York Times reported, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan "pleaded for calm, but warned that radiation had already spread from the crippled reactors and there was 'a very high risk' of further leakage."
Workers are attempting to bring the reactors under control, and to prevent spent fuel rods, which are kept submerged in water, from overheating and deepening the crisis. We don't know yet what toll this emergency will take on the people of Japan and on the environment. But policymakers are even now beginning to gauge how this nuclear crisis may affect the fate of nuclear energy in the United States, where the looming threat of global warming has elevated nuclear to the "lesser evil" in the minds of many, including some of its former foes.
For the first time in decades, new nuclear plants are in the works here in the U.S., with the blessing of President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. (Hear Steven Chu talk about nuclear power.) Though Slate's David Weigel reported on Tuesday that the crisis in Japan has not weakened Washington's support for nuclear, some top House Democrats are calling for an investigation and hearings on the safety of the United States' nuclear plants. Meanwhile, Switzerland is suspending plans for new plants, and Germany has put a temporary hold on extensions of current plants, according to the New York Times.
What can we learn from what's happening in Japan? Is it possible to compare the risks and benefits of nuclear energy with the risks and benefits of fossil fuels? Can we build a truly accident-proof reactor? In the coming days and weeks, we'll be using this space to bring you opinions on these questions from a number of nuclear and environmental experts. In the meantime, we invite you to share your thoughts on the crisis in Japan and what it means for the future of nuclear energy here in the United States and around the world.