Experts Look at Nuclear Power After Fukushima

Nuclear security experts from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center say that the disaster in the Fukushima power plant will not necessarily constrain the growth of the nuclear power industry, especially where the demand for more energy is high.

Yun Zhou, a Nuclear Security Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said that although the recent disaster has slowed the nuclear power agendas of some Western powers, it will not stop the building of nuclear power plants in rapidly developing countries such as China and India as they attempt to meet their energy demands.

“They [China and India] do not have another effective alternative, for in those countries the economy grows too fast,” said Zhou, who studies international nuclear security. “They have a huge population and a huge energy demand,” she added.

By contrast, Western nations, where demand for energy is steadier, have been more hesitant.

In Germany, for instance, the government is debating whether or not to phase it out altogether.

In the U.S., views on the use of nuclear energy vary widely.

HKS Associate Professor Matthew Bunn, also of the Belfer School, explained that ultimate decision-making lies with the federally appointed Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which issues and renews nuclear power plants’ licenses.

The renewal of the license for of the Vermont Yankee Power Plant earlier this week has caused a stir in that state, and the possible renewal in 2012 of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, the only nuclear power plant in Massachusetts, will likely face similar opposition.

Both of these cases have been especially contentious because they contain the same General Electric Mark I Boiling Water Reactors that presented a problem in Fukushima, of which only 23 exist in the U.S.—roughly a fifth of those in the country—and 32 in the world, according to the GE website.

Bunn said that a major safety concern within the industry is the lack of a strong international regulating agency that can force nuclear plants to take on additional safety measures. Although the International Energy Agency offers safety checks upon request, he said, the checks are not compulsory and the agency has no authority to declare a plant unsafe.

Bunn said the Mark 1 reactors are vulnerable to the station blackouts that were the root of the troubles in Fukushima. Additionally, he said, American Mark I reactors are only required to have 8 hours of additional battery life on hand to combat blackouts, similar to the battery life at the Fukushima plant.

“The question we should be asking is are there risks ... that could be reduced with relatively small investments,” he said. “And if the answer is yes, then we ought to be making those investments.”

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