Here Comes the Backlash to Japan’s Nuclear Disaster

There’s a lot that will be gleaned over the coming weeks and months from Japan’s nuclear “disaster.” It’s a pretty big nuclear fail, on par with Three Mile Island (U.S., 1979), though at this point not yet a Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986). It’s been at the front and center of global media and policy debates this weekend, and it’s an ongoing situation.

The latest is that Japanese authorities have reportedly said there’s a significant chance the fuel rods have partially melted at two of the reactors, and they are still fighting a full-blown meltdown (Scientific American has a detailed look at just what went wrong after the earthquake and tsunami). The operator of the reactors, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), resorted to pumping seawater into the reactors, which to many in the industry sounds very much like a last-ditch, worrisome effort. Reuters reported 140,000 people have been evacuated from the area as a safety precaution, and iodine is being readied to distributed to people in the area to protect them from radioactive exposure. We’ll soon see if the disaster will get worse or better.

What we do know is that the incident could have far-reaching repercussions on the nuclear policies of the governments of the U.S., European countries, China and India, and will likely do significant damage to public opinion in general of nuclear energy. As the Guardian put it succinctly: “When experts decide it is necessary to flood reactors in the world’s most technologically advanced nation with an improvised flow of marine muck, people will ask whether the industry’s contingency planning for disaster is really as good as we are always being promised.”

Already, anti-nuclear groups are already using the incident to point to the dangers — or at least unknowns — of nuclear. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman has called for a moratorium on new nuclear power until lessons are learned from Japan. The Washington Post reported (s wpo) this weekend that the disaster could be a set back for U.S. nuclear policy, though acknowledged it’s still too early to tell what the effect will be, given the situation in Japan could change in the coming hours and days.

Over the past two years, President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu have been amassing one of the most aggressive government plans to support nuclear power in the U.S. in decades. Last year, the DOE announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to Southern Company to build two nuclear plants in Burke County, Ga., which will be the first nuclear plants in the U.S. in almost three decades. At one point, Obama had a plan to dole out $54.5 billion in loan guarantees to build nuclear power in the U.S. (Incidentally, Tokyo Electric Power Co. has also planned to invest $125 million into expanding a Texas nuclear project.)

Europe is already starting to face a public backlash, and policy discussions, too. U.K Energy Secretary Chris Huhne publicly asked British officials and the public not to panic about the British nuclear strategy, and pointed out England’s lack of earthquakes. Germans, many of which already oppose nuclear power, saw protests this weekend around a nuclear plant there, with around 40,000 people turning out. France is battling criticism from its own anti-nuclear groups, given the country generates some 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear.

Both China and India are reviewing their nuclear plans, reports Bloomberg. India has planned to spend $175 billion by 2030 on nuclear power, and China has planned to add 27 reactors in five years, according to the report.

Don’t expect the fear over Japan’s nuclear disaster to go away anytime soon. It’s taken decades for Chernobyl and Three Mile Island to fade in people’s memories.

Beyond the public relations nightmare of the dangers associated with nuclear, costs are as much of a concern. Not just to build the plants, but also to deal with any nuclear problems. According to the World Nuclear Association, the cleanup of the damaged nuclear reactor system at Three Mile Island took nearly 12 years and cost approximately $973 million.

Image courtesy of rowens27.