The final cost of the nuclear disaster in Japan will probably never be known, but we already know the toll – human, environmental, and economic – will be crushing. Tens of thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes and possessions, their daily lives and livelihoods. The Japanese government hopes they can go home by the beginning of next year. Even today, more towns are being evacuated, and the people who live in them may never go home. International shipping and industry have been disrupted. Food and water have been contaminated, farm animals and crops abandoned.
The Nuclear Information and Resource Service has a straightforward, up-to-date chronicle) The nuclear industry itself has been damaged. Tokyo Electric’s multi-billion dollar asset has become an even bigger liability—overnight. Last year the utility was one of the largest in the world and made a $1.6 billion profit; its net loss in the year just ended was $15.3 billion. The US “nuclear renaissance,” which has always been more rhetorical than real, is looking less likely. Areva has announced a year-long delay in construction of a uranium enrichment plant in eastern Idaho. Though the French company said the Idaho delay is not connected with Fukushima, it did acknowledge the situation in Japan in announcing a “strategic pause” in construction of a reactor component plant in Newport News, Virginia, “until market conditions become more favorable.”
One of the US nuclear projects most likely to come to fruition had been an expansion of the South Texas reactor complex. NRG Energy has now announced that “the tragic nuclear incident in Japan has introduced multiple uncertainties around new nuclear development in the United States.” In writing down its $481 million investment, the company acknowledged “it is impossible for us to justify to our shareholders any further financial participation in the development of the project.” One of NRG Energy’s partners was Tokyo Electric, which is now in shambles.
Among the “uncertainties” in NRG Energy’s calculations was probably US public opinion. According to a March 2011 poll conducted for the Civil Society Institute, 73% of the American people oppose federal loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors. Without those subsidies, new reactors will simply not be built. And that might be fine with the American public. An April 2011 ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 64% now oppose new reactor construction entirely.
Globally, the third and fourth largest economies in the world, Japan and Germany, have moved sharply away from nuclear power. Germany took its seven oldest reactors off-line shortly after the accident and seems set to phase out all nuclear power by 2021. Fourteen of Japan’s 54 current reactors remain off line, and the six at Fukushima will most certainly never restart. Before the disaster, Japan had ambitious nuclear development goals. It has now realigned its energy policy toward renewable energy expansion. Italy first declared a one-year moratorium on new reactor construction and now may extend it indefinitely. China has suspended new reactor approvals, and Switzerland has delayed its nuclear plans.
The “nuclear renaissance” was always a long, dangerous shot. Even before the Fukushima catastrophe, it was hobbled by high construction costs, technical risks, licensing delays, low natural gas prices, and decreased electricity demand. After Fukushima, it’s well to remember the words of US Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, who worked at the Idaho National Laboratory early in her career. “The nuclear industry is now, and may always remain, just one accident away from retrenchment.”