15 Mar 2011

Fallout from Japan’s nuclear crisis

Written by energyscout

How will Japan fill the gap left by disabled nuclear power plants? And how will other countries with nuclear power plants react to risks posed by  GE’s boiling water reactors in earthquake-prone regions?

The answers may not be known for weeks, or months. But as the earthquake damage assessments become more credible, some implications are beginning to emerge.

1. Japan will need new, baseload (always on), generation capacity to replace what it has lost. Coal and natural gas could be huge winners because those plants can be built more quickly than new nukes.

2. Harmful greenhouse gases will no doubt go up from current levels. But conservation measures and perhaps some renewable sources such as solar could plug a small part of the gap. The balance for the foreseeable future will be pure hardship.

3. The impact on Japan’s automobile and electronics industries could be devastating. Could they relocate more of their manufacturing capacity to China? Or the U.S.?

4. While Japan will want to rebuild its nuclear energy capabilities long term with updated reactor designs, those designs will likely undergo intense scrutiny. New or replacement nukes could be a decade away from producing one megawatt. That said, nuclear energy suppliers and contractors are salivating at the business opportunity.

The "Mark 1" design of GE's boiling water nuclear reactor may be culpable in the explosions of the Japanese power plant explosions. Image credit: Nuclear Energy Institute

There are currently 35 operating boiling-water reactors in the U.S., all of which use a pressure-suppression containment. Of these, 23 reactors use the “Mark I”  design (right) deployed at the six-reactor Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex. In addition, there are 9 pressurized-water reactors operating in the U.S. that use ice-condenser containment, which has the similar shortcomings, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

U.S. utilities such as Entergy that are seeking to renew licenses using the Mark I design now face much taller  hurdles.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the U.S. Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement, “I think undoubtedly they’ll (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) be taking a fresh look at the safety precautions and provisions that are in place, in light of whatever is learned from the Japanese. I hope that the Commission will quickly reach some conclusions about whether the safety precautions and provisions that it has insisted on are adequate for the future.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it had sent 11 experts to Japan by March 15 to assist in the country’s emergency response and recovery.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has ordered seven nuclear power plants shut down and on March 15 began a three-month safety re-assessment, according to The New York Times.






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