The magnitude 9.0 earthquake — among the five most powerful quakes recorded since recordkeeping began 112 years ago—struck at 2:46 p.m. local time on March 11 about 60 kilometers off the east coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu. Fifty minutes later, a tsunami just shy of 50 feet in height hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and knocked out power at the six-reactor facility. Reactors 1, 2 and 3 experienced full meltdown. Multiple fires erupted in Reactor 4. Reactors 5 and 6 where shut down for maintenance and survived relatively unscathed.
Based on measurements of radioactive isotopes recorded in the atmosphere, the Fukushima disaster was of the same scale as the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in Ukraine 25 years ago. The land within a 12-mile radius of Fukushima will be uninhabitable for decades. Removal of the spent rods and decommissioning of the facility is expected to start in about 10 years and to be completed around 2040. Japan will be scarred for generations.
Nine months on, the consequences of the Fukushima disaster continue to reverberate around the world as national governments and their citizens question the safety and efficacy of nuclear power.
Fukushima “caused deep public anxiety throughout the world and damaged confidence in nuclear power,” Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, acknowledged in a speech at the IAEA’s annual general conference on Sept. 19 in Vienna. In an effort to restore some degree of confidence, the IAEA has published its first-ever “Action Plan on Nuclear Safety.”
This photo, taken on Nov. 12 at the Fukushima
Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan, shows the upper part of No. 3 reactor building. The photo was taken on the first day that the government and the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., allowed reporters to enter the facility since it was badly damaged in a series of explosions triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Click on image to enlarge.
According to the most recent IAEA forecast, published in August, the 20-year growth projections for nuclear power are down for both total capacity and the number of new plants to be built compared with the projections the agency made last year. The forecast considers economic and political factors as well as responses to the Fukushima disaster.
The IAEA’s forecast includes both low (“conservative”) and high (“optimistic”) projections. The low case assumes few changes in policies affecting nuclear power other than those already in the pipeline. The high case assumes the financial and economic crises will be overcome in the near future and that past rates of economic growth and electricity demand, especially in the Far East, will resume.
Overall, the IAEA projects the world’s installed nuclear power capacity will grow from 375 gigawatts today to a low of 501 GW and a high of 746 GW in 2030. The low and high growth projections are 8 percent lower and 7 percent lower, respectively, than the corresponding forecasts made in 2010.
China will lead the way in nuclear power plant construction,
according to the IAEA. North America and Western Europe are expected to see modest growth or perhaps a decline in their reliance on nuclear power over the next 20 years.
Click on image to enlarge.
Similarly, the IAEA’s regional growth projections for the four primary nuclear markets are all down from the 2010 regional forecasts, with the most significant declines in growth expected in Western Europe and North America.
Nuclear power’s strongest near- and long-term growth prospects are in Asia. Of the 16 construction starts in 2010,
13 were in Asia, primarily in China and India, according to the IAEA. In all, 45 of the 67 reactors under construction are in Asia, as are 34 of the last 43 new reactors that have been connected to the grid.