Archive for March 15th, 2011

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Reactions to the Fukushima I Disaster

I don’t know a great deal about how nuclear power plants work. Nor do I know if it was the earthquake itself or rather the tsunami which disabled cooling / safety mechanisms at the Fukushima I nuclear power plant. And nobody can tell yet as to how far the struggle for containing the fallout will be successful, or as to how far it will fail to succeed.

But people and governments in different places are drawing conclusions already. There is political fallout that the civil nuclear industry will struggle to contain, at least in some countries.

Fukushima is bad news for all of us, and for Japan (possibly for neighboring countries, too) in particular. It’s also bad news for the nuclear industry – General Electric, for example. The company hopes to sell nuclear reactors to India. Bloomberg quotes Debasish Mishra, Mumbai-based senior director at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, as saying that

The Japan accident has created a very, very tough situation for India, actual implementation of nuclear power projects will now certainly take a backseat […]. It will be very difficult to sell the idea of nuclear power to people for any political party after the Japan disaster.

It may be a different story in China.

Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, is quoted as saying (also by Bloomberg) that Fukushima I may become a factor in the drafting of China’s energy plans. But the same news article adds that

in China, the government won’t change its plans to develop nuclear power, Zhang Lijun, vice minister of environmental protection, said a day after the 8.9-magnitude temblor struck off the eastern coast of Japan. Local media said the death toll from the quake and ensuing tsunami may exceed 10,000.

China has pledged to cut carbon emissions by switching to clean energy such as nuclear and wind power. It wants at least 15 percent of its energy mix to come from non-fossil fuels by 2020 and is building more atomic plants to help meet that goal.

Nuclear plants are apparently viewed quite positively in China. Most people I know think of them as clean sources of energy (and it’s said that they don’t smell, which is nice, too). Given that international affairs usually take second-seat in Chinese news anyway, the news about Fukushima may not leave as monumental an impression on Chinese minds anyway, as it may on, say, German minds. A majority of Germans has been skeptical of nuclear energy during all the industry’s history.

Censorship and the Department of Propaganda’s work may do the rest to keep the Chinese rather enthusiastic about nuclear fuel.

Some are enthusiastic for other reasons, given that disaster struck in Japan. ChinaSmack published a mixed bag of Chinese netizens’ comments. Censorship will, in all likelihood, distort the online picture of Chinese netizens’ reactions, be it for grossly and gleefully nationalist ones, be it for a comment like

“The casualties from an 8.9 event in China would be hundreds of times higher than in Japan.”

Censorship and propaganda will play a role in keeping the Chinese happy spectators of a nucelar energy policy.

But there may be more to it. Taiwan isn’t exactly panicking either. Klaus, a German journalist in Japan, wrote that Fukushima I has revived a public argument about the safety or unsafety of nuclear energy in Taiwan, where three nuclear power plants with six reactors are operating, and another one under construction. But Klaus also quotes Robin Winkler, co-chairman of Taiwan’s Green party (formerly an American, now a naturalized Taiwanese citizen), as saying that he doesn’t expect big demonstrations against nuclear power anytime soon. Taiwan’s per-capita energy consumption exceeds German consumption by 50 per cent, writes Klaus, and safety issues are hardly ever brought up by the media, he quotes Winkler, even though, ten years ago, then president Chen Shui-bian had halted construction of the fourth plant which is now again under construction.

That said, Taiwan’s opponents to nuclear fuel will organize demonstrations, if work on the fourth plant continues, Klaus quotes the Taipei Timeslarge-scale, if possible.

Did I mention that most Germans are skeptical of nuclear energy? The truth is that many are downright afraid of it. And the German center-right government, which – only months ago – prolonged a phase-out of German nuclear plants which had previously been negotiated with Germany’s major energy suppliers by its Social Democrat / Green predessors, is now downright afraid of the public mood. Seven German plants – built before 1980 – will be taken off the gridlines for at least three months, chancellor Angela Merkel announced on Monday. One of them, Neckarwestheim, will be switched off for good. Elections are looming in Baden-Württemberg, and in Rhineland-Palatinate.

It’s hard to imagine that Fukushima I won’t have an impact on public opinion in Japan. But right now, the mere struggle for survival probably eclipses any such debate.

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