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Facing Nuclear Fear

Renewing public support after Fukushima Daiichi.

Fortnightly Magazine - October 2011

Three Mile Island, 1979; Chernobyl, 1986; Fukushima Daiichi, 2011—most who follow world news know the stories of these ill-fated nuclear power plants. But what about Honkeiko Colliery, 1942; Courrieres, 1906; or Monongah, 1907? These mining disasters led to 3,010 fatalities among them, but they’re seldom mentioned in the public forum today.

Nuclear accidents, in spite of fewer immediate fatalities, stimulate far greater long-term negative public reaction than mining incidents do, and they create greater fear. After mining incidents, mining improvements are made, new regulations are set in place, and mining begins again. After nuclear incidents, however, nuclear proponents and investors reduce their public profile, cut back on development and promotion efforts, and even cancel or delay nuclear projects. The news media create a maelstrom of crisis, fear and uncertainty. Anti-nuclear groups gain new strength and marshal their efforts. An incident can set back investment for a generation or more.

Since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster ensued, two European leaders have taken different and highly public stands on nuclear power: French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited the nuclear plant at Gravelines, and was photographed looking over a spent fuel pool, to express solidarity with France’s nuclear power program. Meanwhile, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel announced plans to shut down eight old reactors immediately, and nine remaining plants by 2022. Many countries have put nuclear expansion on hold until the lessons from Fukushima are better understood—Japan and China among them.

In the United States, the reactions have been just as diverse; while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to close the Indian Point reactor, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported relicensing the same reactor, saying that its closing could cause blackouts in the city.

In response to bad press and deteriorating public perception of nuclear energy, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) worked to publicize the U.S. nuclear power industry’s 90 percent availability record, its stringent operating standards, and the billions of dollars that have been spent to improve safety. NEI observed that there have been no major abnormal occurrences in U.S. nuclear power plants in the last eight years. Yet fears about nuclear safety have persisted. An unusual earthquake on the East Coast, centered in Richmond, Va., raised questions about the Lake Anna plant’s vulnerability to temblors. Flooding of the Missouri River focused attention on the safety of Nebraska nuclear plants. And a deadly industrial accident near France’s Marcoule spent-fuel processing center served to intensify fears about nuclear power around the world.

In the wake of the disaster in Japan, the U.S. nuclear power industry is taking stock of its status and outlook for the future. What will the industry and regulatory authorities learn from Fukushima Daiichi, and what direction will they