Meltdown triggers fears about safety of nuclear energy

The unfolding crisis at the two reactors, both at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, feeds into a resurgence of doubts about nuclear energy’s safety — even as it has gained credence as a source of clean energy in a time of mounting concerns about the environmental and public health tolls of fossil fuels.

The crisis stems from failures of the cooling systems at the reactors at the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi plant. At a nearby nuclear plant, Daini, three more reactors lost their cooling systems, and Japanese officials were scrambling to determine whether the systems could be revived or would also need injections of cooling seawater.

Critics of nuclear energy have long questioned the viability of nuclear power in earthquake-prone regions like Japan. Reactors have been designed with such concerns in mind, but preliminary assessments of the Fukushima Daiichi accidents suggested that too little attention was paid to the threat of tsunami. It appeared that the reactors withstood the powerful earthquake, but the ocean waves damaged generators and backup systems, harming the ability to cool the reactors.

It was not until Sunday that the increasingly dangerous nature of the problems at Daiichi became clear. But even on Saturday, with Reactor No 1 there having suffered a radiation leak and an explosion, James M Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said adding that the nuclear industry would be shaken. While Japan may try to point to the safety of its newer facilities, concerns may run too deep, he said.

Decades ago, after the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents, Acton said, the nuclear industry tried to argue that newer reactors incorporated much better safety features. “That made very little difference to the public,” he said.

Japan’s status as the only target of nuclear attack, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, adds to the public’s sensitivity.

Benjamin Leyre, a utilities industry analyst with Exane BNP Paribas in Paris, said politicians in Europe and elsewhere would almost certainly come under increased pressure to revisit safety measures.

“What is likely to come will depend a lot on how transparent the regulators in Japan are,” Leyre said.

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