Monday, March 14, 2011

Japan's nuclear crisis after quake prompts clean energy debate

Europe has been quick to review plans to build more nuclear power stations as Japan’s struggle to from its apocalyptic explosions from its Fukushima plants following Friday’s 8.9 magnitude earthquake.

Angela Merkel is expected to put on hold a decision to extend the life of the fleet of ageing nuclear plants in Germany, where 50,000 protesters held a demonstration outside a nuclear facility near Stuttgart.

Campaigners have urged developing countries such as India, China, Turkey and Indonesia – where nuclear programmes are gathering pace - to shelve proposals or raise safety standards.

UK energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne attempted to reassure the British public about the safety of its ageing fleet of nuclear reactors on the coast of Britain at the weekend:

“We take this incident extremely seriously even though there is no reason to expect a similar scale of seismic activity in the UK. It is essential that we understand the full facts and their implications, both for existing nuclear reactors and any new programme, as safety is always our number one concern.”

But discussions on nuclear safety in the US are so far limited despite hopes expressed by Tom Clements of Friends of the Earth: "This is going to change the discussion in the US and elsewhere about basing energy supplies on nuclear power. Placing stations in earthquake zones is going to change the debate.”

Energy secretary Stephen Chu has yet to make a statement on the situation in Japan, but he is expected to do so during an appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday.

Nationally, nuclear generates 20% of electricity in the US. In California, 47% of electricity is produced by gas-fired power stations. But 16.5% of the state’s electricity is also produced at two nuclear power stations at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre, between Los Angeles and San Diego. They are positioned on the coast so they can use ocean water for cooling, but this also puts them in the firing line of a tsunami.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) declared “an unusual event” at its Diablo Canyon plant on Friday but how the reactors, which are only 1,800 ft from a recently discovered fault, would cope with a large natural disaster worries some residents nearby. And PG&E’s actions over the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion hardly inspires confidence in the company’s safety record and seismic protection measures.

Even as the apocalyptic disaster continues to unfold in Japan, some analysts are already viewing the debate over nuclear safety as an opportunity for renewable technologies (as opposed to clean energy after Barack Obama placed nuclear alongside clean energy from solar and wind).

Barclays Capital issued a statement this morning from New York which predicted:

“The recent earthquake in Japan could help stimulate more constructive cleantech policy discussions and improve the longer term policy outlook for the sector, in our opinion. Nuclear (along with natural gas) were considered to be prominent threats to clean generation technologies such as wind, solar. The bull case for nuclear policy could now become weaker and this could indirectly benefit solar/wind policy development, in our view.”

After the damage has been assessed, the horrific scenes in Japan call for a debate on whether nuclear and “clean coal” belong in the same energy mix as clean technologies such as wind and solar.

"Brown energy" hazards associated with earthquakes, also seen in Japan, however, should also be explored in areas such as San Francisco’s Bay Area which has six fault lines running through it. Chevron put its 245,271-barrel per day refinery in the north east bay in tsunami preparation mode on Friday without dropping production. Chevron executives will not have ignored the blaze at the Cosmo refinery in Ichihara. There are six further refineries in the bay area and dozens more along the Californian coast, often in urban locations, sited next to residential areas or malls.

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