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After Fukushima, the nuclear industry wonders what's next

December 08, 2011

Japan's Self-Defense Force members scrape the surface of the lawn while working on a decontamination operation around Iitate town hall in Iitate, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan, Wednesday, December 7, 2011. - Photo by AP

PARIS: Until March 11, the nuclear energy industry had been enjoying resurgent acceptability as carbon-cutting countries sought to create energy without burning fossil fuels.

But everything changed when a deadly tsunami smashed into Japan's eastern coast, damaging nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Suddenly, the nuclear industry was in crisis.

The 14-metre killer wave, triggered by a magnitude-9 underwater earthquake, swamped coastal defences and flooded emergency cooling generators at the power station.

The wave would cause more than 15,000 deaths.

Workers and technicians, often exposing themselves to mega-doses of radiation, toiled night and day to cool the reactors with water but were unable to stabilise temperatures.

Eventually, hydrogen explosions blasted through the power plant, spewing massive amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere.

The accident forced the immediate evacuations of tens of thousands of people from within a 20-km hot zone.

No one was immediately killed, though 150,000 people from the Fukushima district were ultimately forced to flee.

Ultra-modern Japan found itself grappling with an unseen menace and a credibility problem as officials were slow to admit the scale of the disaster.

Twenty-five years after Chernobyl, the world had a new no man's land.

The shock was global.

By the end of May, Germany said it would decommission its 17 reactors over the coming decade.

Switzerland announced a nuclear end by 2034 and in June, Italians decided by referendum to end that country's nuclear industry.

Belgium, too, is considering a phase-out. In France, which generates a whopping 75 per cent of its power from fission, questions about the future of the country's atomic industry have become a key issue in next year's presidential elections.

Anxious to restore public faith in nuclear plants, officials traveled the world testing power stations and delaying numerous projects.

Japan switched off several reactors for tests, leaving only nine reactors up and running.

Results won't be known until next year, but it's certain that safety margins will need to be improved, forcing nuclear power to become more expensive and less competitive.

Fukushima was the world's third large-scale nuclear disaster, after Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986.

It's not clear how giants in the nuclear industry – GE-Hitachi, Toshiba-Westinghouse, Russia's Rosatom and France's Areva – will react to the crisis.

Experts are torn over whether the industry faces total collapse, a more modest decline, or diminished some growth.

One scenario from the International Atomic Energy Agency is the cancellation of 50 per cent of new projects, no new construction in developed countries and a 15 per cent reduction in the number of existing power stations.

But Asia has an ever-growing appetite for power and is home to three-quarters of the 62 reactors under construction.

China and India are gargantuan consumers of fossil fuels and don't have many cheap alternatives to nuclear readily available.

Some European countries are keeping a close eye on their carbon caps, including Britain, Finland, Sweden and Poland.

Without nuclear energy, such nations are struggling to figure out alternative ways of generating fossil-free electricity.

Wind and solar projects are getting cheaper but remain scarce and are subject to the vagaries of the elements.

Some believe natural gas could emerge as a big winner in the event of a nuclear pull back.