Fukushima Anniversary: The Road Ahead

on March 09, 2012 at 9:00 AM

There was no way for the nuclear industry to succeed at handling Fukushima. The disastrous and poorly-managed shutdown of a nuclear reactor built too close to shore, hit by an earthquake and an even-more-devestating tsunami, gave birth to a year’s worth of images and heartbreak no normal business could handle in normal ways.

In the days after the Fukushima disaster the US industry dialed up its responsiveness in ways that ranged from a North Carolina-based disaster response center handling technology questions, sending personnel to Japan, and handling a leap in internet traffic to relevant websites. Most of what the general public wanted was information that could reassure, and the US nuclear industry sought to supply that information.

While communities on the West Coast worried about the potential for fallout, the energy business also fretted about the potential impacts that a sharp backlash against nuclear power could have in the US. Widespread closures could threaten US electricity stability and drive prices for power higher in unpredictable ways. Germany’s high-profile decision to shutter its substantial nuclear generation in favor of renewable energy was closely watched for its impacts on both the energy sector and its broader economy.

A year after Fukushima, it often seems that the US has, in the Blitz tradition often cited during the Great Recession “kept calm and carried on.”

Reports from regulators both domestic and international proliferated and protests against relicensing existing nuclear plants grew in volume, but the past year has also seen a mostly incident-free automatic shutdown of a nuclear plant in the US hit by an unusual earthquake and the licensing of the first new nuclear units in the US in decades.

The nuclear energy industry is about more than the characteristic cooling towers that loom in consumers’ minds. Nuclear energy remains an area of technical achievement where the US continues to lead, and a host of associated industries feed off both its intellectual property and its technical expertise in the US. Nuclear energy has kept power prices in many areas of the country lower and less volatile than they would otherwise have been, it pays high salaries to educated operators and it has limited growth in polluting emissions.

Nuclear energy over the past decade also managed to stay largely out of the news until March 11, 2011. No news, for many years in the sector, was good news. That is no longer the case; the nuclear energy industry has learned how to talk about itself over the past year in situations its engineers and managers could not control.

In a world where transparency is now expected rather than preferred, the lessons of Fukushima include an end to silent workmanship for the nuclear industry. As the sector, and the world, brace for another year of dissecting the lessons of Fukushima and implementing improvements stemming from those lessons, expect a lot more talk about those horrible days one year ago in Japan.

For more on the Fukushima anniversary, see our “Fukushima Anniversary” tagged content on Breaking Energy and return for more throughout the day.