March 2011, Week 3


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Tue, 15 Mar 2011 21:50:25 -0400
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Japan Teeters on the Edge of Nuclear Meltdown, While
U.S. and Other Countries Work to Build More Nuclear Reactors

You'd think the world would have wised up by now to the risks
of nuclear power, but that's not the case in our country and
many others.   |

By Tina Gerhardt 
March 14, 2011


On Friday, Japan was hit by a massive earthquake initially
measured to be 8.9 and now upgraded to 9.0 on the Richter
scale. One of the largest quakes ever measured in history,
its epicenter lay just northeast of Japan. The quake
unleashed a massive tsunami. Together, the quake and tsunami
have claimed more than 10,000 lives.

Then, on Saturday an explosion occurred at the Fukushima
Daiichi nuclear power plant. Located in northeastern Japan,
near the quake's epicenter, the plant has six boiling water
reactors. The first blast occurred at Fukushima No. 1. In
order to keep the reactor cool, the system needs a regular
influx of water. This water system, in turn, requires
electricity. The generators were wiped out by the tsunami.
Replacement generators were delivered but their plugs were
incompatible with those of the plant.

Desperate attempts were made to keep the reactor's core cool
by drawing on sea water. If the core is not kept cool, it can
melt through the containment wall, causing a meltdown and
allowing radiation to leak. (For more about the structure of
the reactor, see an image of the Fukushima reactor's design.)

Earlier on Monday, an explosion took place at reactor No. 3,
whose core officials are now also struggling to keep cool.
Then, early Tuesday an explosion was reported at No. 2.
"Government officials admitted that it was 'highly likely'
the fuel rods in three separate reactors had started to melt
despite repeated efforts to cool them with sea water,"
reported Gordon Rayner and Martin Evans for the Telegraph.
"Safety officials said they could not rule out a full
meltdown as workers struggled to keep temperatures under
control in the cores of the reactors."

Japan has formally called on the international community for
assistance to address the problem.

As a result of Friday's earthquake and tsunami in Japan,
leaders worldwide are rethinking their nuclear energy policy.

While some are reconsidering their safety mechanisms, others
are radically scaling back. China and Russia, however, are
considering building new reactors.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),
442 nuclear power plants are currently in operation.

The largest consumers of nuclear energy are -- in order of
megawatts consumed -- the U.S., France, Japan, Russia and
Germany, followed closely by South Korea, Canada, the
Ukraine, the United Kingdom and Sweden.

But as growing economies are building new plants, these
rankings will soon change. Given plants under construction,
the biggest consumers are set to be: China, Russia, South
Korea, India, Japan, Bulgaria, Ukraine, France, Finland,
Brazil and the U.S.

Here's a quick overview of the state of nuclear energy
worldwide, focusing on its biggest consumers:

China: On Monday, China -- the biggest consumer of energy
worldwide but currently still well behind other nations in
the amount of megawatts of energy drawn from nuclear power --
announced its continued commitment to nuclear energy. To
date, China has 13 nuclear reactors. A further 27 new
reactors are currently under construction and another 50
plants are planned.

Russia: According to the Interfax news agency, Russian Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin stated on Monday that Russia would
continue with construction of 20 planned nuclear power
plants. Russia is currently ramping nuclear energy from 16
percent to 33 percent of the overall energy budget. Russia
has a vexed relationship to nuclear energy as a result of the
nuclear meltdown in 1986 in Chernobyl, located in what was
then the Soviet Union and is now the Ukraine.

India: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced Monday that
all of India's nuclear reactors will be proofed for security,
particularly with regard to earthquakes and tsunamis. India
has over 20 nuclear power plants, the majority of which are
along its coast.

France: While the EU has called for a complete rethink of its
nuclear energy policy, announcing an emergency meeting with
the International Atomic Energy Association next week, its
largest consumer of nuclear energy, France, has thus far not
taken a public position as a result of crisis in Japan.
France derives 75 percent of its energy from nuclear power.

Germany: German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday that
she is reconsidering a moratorium on Germany's nuclear power
plants. Last fall, Merkel announced that nuclear power plants
would be extended by 12 years on average. In response, huge
demonstrations took place. In 2000, the previous coalition
government of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green
Party, announced a decision to phase out nuclear power plants
by 2020. On Saturday, 60,000 protesters again demonstrated
against nuclear energy, forming a 28-mile human chain from
the city of Stuttgart to the Neckarwestheim nuclear power
plant. Both the city and the plant are located in one of the
two states where Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic
Union (CDU) party faces elections on March 27.

Switzerland: The Swiss government announced that it has
suspended plans to build new atomic energy reactors. Minister
for Environment, Transportation, Energy and Communications
Doris Leuthard stated that current plants would be assessed
for safety before decisions are made about new plants.
Switzerland has five nuclear power plants, which account for
40 percent of its energy needs.

U.S.: The U.S. administration had been embracing nuclear
energy as a solution to rising energy costs. President
Obama's State of the Union proposed ramped nuclear energy
with $36 billion in Department of Energy loans set aside for
the construction of up to 20 new nuclear power plants. Just a
few days prior to his State of the Union, President Obama
announced G.E. CEO Jeffrey Immelt would be newly appointed as
chairman of his outside panel of economic advisers,
succeeding former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. The
reactors affected in Japan are U.S.-made, produced by G.E.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, the U.S.'s Nuclear Regulatory
Commission posted a short statement stating, "NRC's rigorous
safety regulations ensure that U.S. nuclear facilities are
designed to withstand tsunamis, earthquakes and other

Yet as Christian Parenti reports over at the Nation, of the
U.S.'s 103 nuclear reactors, 23 are of the same G.E. design
as the Fukushima reactor No. 1. Furthermore, nuclear reactors
in the U.S. are also located on faultlines, particularly the
Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near the San Andreas fault
and the San Onofre nuclear generating station in California.

Parenti calls attention to the "overlooked yet very real
campaign to relicense and extend by 50 percent the operation
of our rickety existing fleet of reactors."

It remains to be seen what the implications of the Japan
earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown are for U.S. energy
policy. But the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and
the unfolding GE nuclear reactor melting down in Japan may
prompt people to begin demanding a more concerted effort to
shift from our dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear, to
clean and safe sources of energy like wind and solar. 

[Tina Gerhardt is an academic and journalist whose writing has
appeared in Grist, the Huffington Post, In These Times and
the Nation.]


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