Nearly a year has passed since the unimaginable happened in Japan: a massive earthquake and tsunami claims the lives of more than 15,000 people and leaves thousands of others homeless; massive devastation occurs in the region’s communities; and an accident unfolds at the local Fukushima Daiichi nuclear energy facility. As we reflect on the events that occurred last March 11, the world demands to know: has the global nuclear industry learned and applied the lessons from the Fukushima Daiichi event to make nuclear energy facilities safer than they were before?
Unequivocally, the answer is YES.
While the U.S. nuclear industry pursues a strategy to add another layer of safety to address the major problem encountered in Japan— the loss of power to maintain essential cooling capacity—nuclear safety regulators and plant operators in countries around the world are applying lessons learned from Japan. New safety initiatives are shaping the future of nuclear energy at more than 440 operating reactors worldwide, as well as more than 210 reactors in the licensing and planning stages.
“The collective commitment to learn from Fukushima means that we all are now in a stronger position than ever to answer the key issues concerning nuclear energy for the future,” said Alistair Burt, U.K. foreign minister, at a conference last fall.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), and other organizations are facilitating the global response to Fukushima Daiichi by sharing safety expertise and collecting information.
In September 2011, all 151 IAEA member nations unanimous adopted an Action Plan on Nuclear Safety to strengthen nuclear safety worldwide. A month later, the IAEA and WANO launched a coordinated effort to ensure that the action plan delivers the intended results. Specific actions include developing a global peer review system to raise safety standards worldwide.
“Together, we can help to ensure that the most robust safety culture establishes deep roots in all countries with nuclear power programs,” said Yukiya Amano, IAEA director general. “It is important for all of us—governments, nuclear regulators, plant operators and the IAEA—to maintain our sense of urgency even after the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi has faded from the international headlines.”
ENHANCING SAFETY AT NUCLEAR ENERGY FACILITIES WORLDWIDE
Responses to Fukushima Daiichi vary depending on each country’s regulatory structure and national energy policies, but the overall objective—to enhance safety at all nuclear energy facilities—is consistent worldwide.
Shortly after the events in Japan, the European Union initiated comprehensive risk and safety assessments at all European nuclear energy facilities. The assessments included an examination of procedures to prevent and respond to security threats, an issue that U.S. nuclear energy facilities addressed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Early results from the evaluations are being used to strengthen Europe’s nuclear energy safety framework.
In the United Kingdom, nuclear energy operators are taking steps to strengthen flood defenses and cope with the loss of electrical power, among other safety enhancements. In keeping with the U.S. approach, U.K. regulators are prioritizing the response effort to focus on the need for backup power and better emergency response planning.
“No matter how high our standards, the quest for improvement must never stop,” Mike Weightman, the U.K.’s chief nuclear inspector said in October 2011.
In South Korea, the government has pledged to spend $1 billion over the next five years to boost safety. South Korea has also performed a series of safety inspections at its 21 reactors.
In India, the government-owned agency that builds and operates nuclear energy facilities established four task forces to coordinate India’s response. India has also taken steps to establish a more independent and robust regulatory system similar to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Japan is taking a similar approach by reorganizing the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) to form a new, more independent regulatory authority.
“When it comes to expertise, knowledge and skill, NISA is weaker than our U.S. counterparts,” Nobuaki Terasaka, the former head of NISA, said at parliamentary inquiry in February.
NUCLEAR ENERGY EXPANSION CONTINUES
Contrary to some predictions, Fukushima Daiichi did not dramatically change the outlook for nuclear energy. With some exceptions, support for nuclear energy remains strong globally, driven by the increasing demand for electricity and concerns about the link between carbon emissions and climate change.
“The place of nuclear energy in providing a greater share of low-carbon energy remains vital to many [EU] member states,” the U.K.’s Burt said, noting that global demand for electricity is set to double by 2050. “The United Kingdom, for its part, remains committed to safe nuclear power as part of its overall energy mix both today and in the future.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy also reaffirmed his strong support for nuclear energy, saying that turning away from nuclear energy would deliver a “fatal blow” to France’s economic competitiveness.
More than 60 reactors are currently under construction worldwide and at least 150 new nuclear projects are in the licensing or advanced planning stages. The recent approval by the NRC to build two new reactors in the state of Georgia cleared the way for the first commercial nuclear project in the United States in more than 30 years.
U.S. public opinion remains strongly favorable toward nuclear energy. A February poll by Bisconti Research, in conjunction with GfK Roper, found that 64 percent of Americans favor the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity.
Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear energy has drawn considerable criticism from experts who warn of negative side effects, including an additional 40 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from carbon-based fuel sources.
“Instead of providing a model for greening a post-industrial economy, Germany’s overreaching greens are showing the rest of the world just how difficult it is to contemplate big cuts in carbon emissions without keeping nuclear power on the table,” The Washington Post said in a recent editorial.
Although the Fukushima Daiichi accident was a global reminder of the need to make safety the top priority, nuclear energy continues to be the best option for reliable, safe, cost-efficient, carbon-free electricity. By capturing lessons learned from the accident, the global nuclear industry is making nuclear energy facilities even safer.
“The Fukushima disaster reminds us that nuclear safety and security require continued vigilance, and we are committed to harnessing nuclear energy—and all our energy resources—in a safe and responsible manner,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a speech at the Vogtle nuclear plant in February.