While most of the world’s nuclear attention is on the efforts underway to regain control of the troubled Fukushima reactors and spent fuel pools, some analysts are suggesting steps to prevent future accidents and beginning to predict the impact of the current crisis on the nuclear future. Harvard professor Matthew Bunn writes in the Washington Post about the need for a new way of performing safety inspections:
Every country operating nuclear facilities needs to undertake an urgent review — by an independent international team, not by the companies that own the plants or the agencies that have long regulated them — of whether there are risk-reduction steps as compelling as those the academy recommended that have not been taken.
He also points out the need to take security and not just safety into consideration:
The risk is not just accidents but attacks. Al-Qaeda has repeatedly considered sabotaging nuclear facilities. The 2006 study focused primarily on the danger that terrorists might succeed in draining the water from a spent-fuel storage pool, the same outcome raising risks in Japan.
Nuclear facilities around the world are much less prepared for security incidents than for accidents. While U.S. reactors are required to have armed guard forces, many reactors abroad — and even some sites with potential nuclear bomb material — have none. One senior U.S. nuclear official I spoke to last fall described security for most of the reactors he had visited abroad as “frightening.”
You can read the entire piece here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-we-can-reduce-the-risk-of-another-fukushima/2011/03/23/ABpyI3KB_story.html
In a similar piece in the New York Times, Princeton physicist Frank N. von Hippel suggests that oversight of the nuclear industry in this country isn’t up to snuff:
Yet despite the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has often been too timid in ensuring that America’s 104 commercial reactors are operated safely. Nuclear power is a textbook example of the problem of “regulatory capture” — in which an industry gains control of an agency meant to regulate it.
As a result of weak regulation, Hippel points to a potentially precarious situation concerning spent fuel pools in this country:
More recently, independent analysts have argued, based on risk analyses done for the commission, it is dangerous for the United States to pack five times more spent fuel into reactor cooling pools than they were designed to hold, and that 80 percent of that spent fuel is cool enough to be stored safely elsewhere. It would also be more expensive, however, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission followed the nuclear utilities’ lead and rejected the proposal.
Praising the staff at the NRC, Hippel instead suggests that these issues begin and can be solved at the top:
Therefore, perhaps the most important thing to do in light of the Fukushima disaster is to change the industry-regulator relationship. It has become customary for administrations not to nominate, and the Senate not to confirm, commissioners whom the industry regards as “anti-nuclear” — which includes anyone who has expressed any criticism whatsoever of industry practices. The commission has an excellent staff; what it needs is more aggressive political leadership.
Even before the nuclear events unfolding in Japan there was little chance that many new nuclear power plants were going to be built in the United States. Not due to fears of meltdowns and radiation releases, or even concerns about long-term storage of nuclear waste, but because the economics just didn’t (and still don’t) make sense. With fossil fuel prices so low, there are few incentives for anyone to provide the money to cover the high construction and other start up costs that come with nuclear power plants.
This is not the case in other nations that have laid out plans for aggressive nuclear power expansion in recent years. For an informed view of the potential impact of the current crises on these efforts in China, Russia, South Korea, India, and Iran, I recommend reading “The Global Future of Nuclear Power after Fukushima” in which researchers from those particular nations provide their views.