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     Apr 5, 2011

Fukushima marks a 'nuclear ice age'
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO - The era of nuclear renaissance is over. The Fukushima shock marks the beginning of the "nuclear ice age".

The ongoing nuclear crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following an earthquake and tsunami is stirring up energy policy of almost all countries that use nuclear power. The repercussions from Fukushima are being strongly being felt at home and abroad, just as aftershocks are still being felt in northern Japan, including Tokyo.

There are 432 nuclear plants operating in 30 countries across the globe, with 66 reactors under construction. Prime Minister Naoto Kan said last Thursday he will rethink from bottom up the government's plan to build at least 14 more nuclear reactors by

2030, as Japan scrambles to overcome its worst nuclear crisis.

In the United States, President Barack Obama's pro-nuclear stance is coming under fire. His plans to go ahead with more nuclear plants in the US are facing mounting opposition.

The US has 104 commercial nuclear reactors, the most in the world. Of these, 23 were built to an identical design as the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactors. Each uses the "Mark I containment system", designed by General Electric decades ago.
ABC News and the New York Times, among other media, reported last month that experts had long criticized the ability of this containment system to withstand the events that cascade from what nuclear experts call a "station blackout" - where the loss of power cripples the reactor's cooling system. This "station blackout" scenario was unfortunately realized when a massive tsunami destroyed all emergency power systems at the Fukushima.

In Germany, the Fukushima shock has forced Chancellor Angela Merkel to change a pro-nuclear position. She suspended government plans to extend the lives of the nation's 17 nuclear plants until the completion of a thorough three-month investigation into reactor safety. She also ordered the closure of all seven plants that began operating before 1980.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is also facing a predicament. France has 59 nuclear reactors, five more than Japan. Due to both public and private sector support, nuclear energy currently contributes nearly 80% of electric power supply. This is the world's highest dependency on nuclear energy surpassing Japan's 29%, the US's 20% and the United Kingdom's 18%. For France, nuclear reactors, fuel products and services are a major export.

This is why Sarkozy and French nuclear energy giant Areva NC are stepping up assistance to cool Fukushima's reactors, and find a solution for the contaminated water seeping out of the troubled nuclear facility. Besides a humanitarian standpoint, this is damage control for French business.

Sarkozy and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said last Thursday that the upcoming meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized countries on May 26-27 will take up the issue of global nuclear safety and discuss the need for a global safety standard for nuclear plants.

The Fukushima shock has also sparked foreign interference in domestic affairs. Greek President Karolos Papoulias last month urged neighboring Turkey to reconsider plans to build its first atomic power stations.

In South Korea, the debate has focused on a "nuclear cooperation agreement" with the US - set to expire in 2014 - that forbids South Korea from possessing spent fuel reprocessing facilities. South Korea has 20 nuclear reactors at present and nuclear energy produces about 40% of the country's electricity.

Seoul's biggest problem is that its nuclear power plants are running out of space to store spent nuclear fuel. Sources say South Korea will likely establish interim storage facilities as a stop-gap measure, but this will become a big issue again as the deal's end draws near.

The list goes on. Nuclear power plant exporters such as the US, France, Canada, Russia, Japan and South Korea are caught in a major backdraft.

The "nuclear renaissance will diminish," Tetsuya Endo, former governor of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) told Asia Times Online on Friday. "Should any nuclear accident happen somewhere in the world, it becomes an accident of the whole globe."

Sweeping overhaul of Japan's nuclear fuel cycle
Japan is experiencing a big irony of history. The only country in the world that has suffered from atomic bombs is now fighting a nuclear disaster caused by nature. The situation at the nuclear plant remains precarious, as plant engineers, Self-Defense Forces (SDF) members, firefighters and the police continue desperate efforts to cool down the overheating reactors and spent fuel.

Even if the country gets the plant under control, an emotional public will be wary of nuclear power forever.

Japanese people were already extremely sensitive about anything nuclear as the only country in human history to have ever been attacked with nuclear weapons. Older generations especially have a "nuclear allergy" over the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their memories of the "A-bombs" are still raw.

Despite this resentment towards nuclear technology, Japan was forced to expand nuclear power generation after the two oil shocks in the 1970s, which exposed Japan's heavy reliance on the Middle East for energy resources.

Petroleum provided about 60% of the whole nation's electricity in 1970, but now it only provides about 10%. Japan imports 99% of its oil from abroad. Although Japan aimed to reduce the dependency rate on petroleum from the Middle East after the oil shocks, it still imports nearly 90% of oil from the Middle East.

The Fukushima plant will be decommissioned and no local government or community is likely to accept the building of a new nuclear power plant in their area now.

The Fukushima incident will be a severe setback for Japan's nuclear fuel cycle, Endo said. The nuclear fuel cycle starts with the mining of uranium and ends with the disposal of nuclear waste. With the reprocessing of used fuel, the stages form a true cycle. Japan has been implemented this program since 1956, according to Endo.

However, the nation has been unable to locate a site for a second nuclear reprocessing plant after the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant of Aomori Prefecture, which managed to escape damage from the March 11 earthquake.

Takashi Hirose, a well-noted Japanese writer on nuclear problems, has pointed out there are about 3,000 tons of highly radioactive used nuclear fuel stored in Rokkasho that could overheat and catch fire if the cooling systems fail. This amount could spread nuclear fallout or "ashes of death" to the whole world, he said.

Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based Japanese journalist. His twitter is @TakahashiKosuke.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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