Nuclear Power: How Does it Work? Does it Have a Future?

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Introduction On March 11, the strongest ever instrumentally recorded earthquake in Japan struck its northern coast. Ground shaking triggered the safety shut-down of 11 nuclear reactors and cut external power supplies to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant complex. Located on the coast just southeast of the earthquake’s epicentre, the Fukushima plant withstood the ground motion but its back-up power supplies from diesel generators, needed to keep its reactor coolant pumps working, were disabled by the impact of a following 14-metre tsunami wave. Further back-up power from batteries kept the coolant pumps working for another eight hours. After this, the plant’s operators began emergency procedures designed to control the temperature of the reactor core, including the use of seawater to douse the structure. Resultant gases such as steam and hydrogen were vented, the hydrogen exploding on contact with oxygen in the atmosphere. As cooling efforts continued, officials from the plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) asserted that the situation was “improving.” Media response to the Fukushima situation was apocalyptic. The 25th anniversary, on 26 April, of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion loomed. German commentators warned that Germany can no longer pretend that nuclear power is safe . Four days after the earthquake, Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered the shut-down of seven nuclear reactors which had been built before 1980. The European Commission agreed to introduce as yet undefined “stress tests” in Europe’s power plants, while China suspended the approval process for new nuclear plants pending the revision of safety procedures. Three months before the Japanese earthquake the Paris-based Nuclear Energy A... ... middle of paper ... ...hrust was to finance the development of renewable energy through a carbon tax on fossil fuels. Even before the Fukushima accident media commentators said the government was “running scared” of openly admitting the need for nuclear power. In the aftermath of Fukushima, the Italian, Swedish and Polish governments announced that they will stick to earlier plans for expanding nuclear power generation. The US government views future nuclear energy provided by small-scale, modular, low-cost reactors built off-site. “This is a reactor that is designed for safety first, not one you do the physics first and then add the safety on,” said Victor Reis, senior adviser to the Office of the Undersecretary of Energy for Science . Unless the nuclear industry worldwide manages to convince a sceptical public of its engineering safety, its future remains an unmentionable limbo.

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