|Fig. 1: Popular approval of construction of new nuclear power plants in the US. |
Since the world's first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile 1, achieved a successful, man-made, controlled nuclear reaction beneath the University of Chicago football stadium, the potential for nuclear power has been a frequently and fervently discussed topic. A rapid growth and hope for more in future years marked the earlier days of commercial nuclear power, up through the mid 1970's.  This outlook abruptly changed with the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979, and subsequent nuclear disasters, such as those at Chernobyl and Fukushima, also had severely detrimental effects on the spread and growth of nuclear power's presence. As has been the case around the globe, the spread and political acceptance of nuclear power suffers drastically following nuclear-related accidents or worries about the safety of the generation of nuclear; for this reason, nuclear has a slim chance of growing significantly in presence in the next few crucial decades.
Nuclear power has a number of inherent advantages over other conventional methods of commercial power generation. Benjamin K. Sovacool discusses one of these advantages, labeling nuclear power as a power source free of carbon dioxide emissions. Conventional fossil fuel power generation, meanwhile, emits megatons of the greenhouse gas.  Nuclear power is also not dependent on the existing distribution network of coal and other fossil fuels, instead relying on a relatively smaller quantity of driving material. The tradeoff, of course, is managing the disposal of the resulting nuclear waste, as well as concerns over the potential health effects. The early days of nuclear power were filled with a curiosity about the technology and the desire to implement it more widely. Figure 2 shows how quickly the generating capacity of the world's nuclear power plant "fleet" grew in its early years, and how more reactors were approved for construction in each subsequent year.
One of the first truly significant nuclear accidents was the March 28, 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. The unit 2 reactor at the facility near Middletown, PA experienced a core meltdown, and the event drew significant public attention and concern, despite the fact that "consequences outside the plant were minimal."  While only minor levels of radiation were detected in the area nearby, and the incident was contained largely without worry, it galvanized and vindicated existing American anti-nuclear sentiment.  A month after the accident, public approval for the construction of new nuclear power plants dropped to 46% from 69% in July of 1977, as seen in Fig. 1.  Still, anti-nuclear sentiment needed something to seize on, and the accident at Three Mile Island provided such an incident and bolstered that sentiment.
|Fig. 2: History of the global nuclear power industry.  (Courtesy of R. R. Rohde)|
As disasters go, the accident at Three Mile Island pales in comparison to that of Chernobyl. On April 26, 1986, at the nuclear power plant near Chernobyl, an equipment test ended in an explosion and fire, scattering radioactive materials into the atmosphere and the surrounding area. Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated or relocated as a result, and long-term effects such as thyroid cancer in young children still crop up. Much of the area surrounding Chernobyl is still uninhabitable, some twenty-seven years later.  Chernobyl was, very clearly, a much larger accident than the one at Three Mile Island, and it had a much more pronounced, and global, effect on the future of the nuclear power industry. As shown in Fig. 2, the number of new nuclear reactors under construction globally markedly tapered off after Chernobyl, and no growth in that regard has occurred in recent years. In the United States, public approval for the construction of new nuclear power plants dipped even more severely following the accident to the paltry figure of 34% approval in May 1986 (Figure 1). Further, unlike the accident at Three Mile Island, where despite an approval below 50%, more approved than disapproved, 59% disapproved post-Chernobyl.
The Chernobyl incident also prompted a drastic shift in an individual nation's stance on nuclear power, a scenario that would play out many times over after the later disaster at Fukushima. Italy, whose government championed and supported its nuclear program, even calling for further increases in nuclear capacity a month before Chernobyl, hurriedly backpedaled on that initiative. A November 1987 referendum saw Italy phase out nuclear power completely, and it closed the remaining three of its four operational reactors.  Chernobyl was a significant, even frightening, incident (measuring a 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale), but the efficiency with which it halted all momentum nuclear power had in nations such as Italy is perhaps more frightening.
The world remained free of large-scale nuclear disasters for just under a quarter-century after Chernobyl, until the disaster at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant in Japan on March 11, 2011. A large tsunami hit the plant after an earthquake, disabling much of the cooling system. The plant's three cores mostly melted within three days. The event, like Chernobyl, measured a 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The Japanese government evacuated over 100,000 people from the area, and in doing so avoided any deaths or radiation sickness cases caused directly by the disaster.  Even so, despite the incident being so free of ill effects to the populace, compared to Chernobyl, it had much more far-reaching effects with regards to the global nuclear power presence. This author posits that it was the far more interconnected, internationally cooperative world of 2011 that accounts for this, and the fact that Chernobyl occurred in a lonely corner of the Soviet Union in the time of the Cold War.
In response to the Fukushima disaster, a sizable number of countries made decisions to scale back or entirely phase out their nuclear programs. Japan was, at the time of the Fukushima meltdown, the nation third most reliant on nuclear power. After the incident, only 10 of 54 reactors were operational, the others having been closed due to the earthquake and tsunami, or for maintenance. The government was in no hurry to reopen them, and in fact "abandoned its policy of promoting atomic power." Plans for expansion were tabled.  Elsewhere in Asia, China and India experienced protests, backlash, and a change of opinion regarding nuclear power, with the Chinese government likewise deciding to scale back on their nuclear pursuits. [10,11] In Europe, Italy reversed its 1987 referendum phasing out nuclear power shortly before Fukushima, but reenacted that decision after the incident.  The French government decided to slow their nuclear expansion, even though nuclear power was a large industry in that nation, while Germany reacted more extremely - Angela Merkel reversed her pro-nuclear stance after Fukushima, subsequently calling for an "exit" from nuclear power by 2022. [8,12,13] Some countries, though, that were already committed to nuclear power, such as Sweden and Norway, kept up the momentum. They were the pronounced minority, however. 
In the United States, the effects of Fukushima were similar to those abroad. In the years before the disaster, nuclear power was not in its best position in the states. "A combination of economic factors had derailed the [nuclear] renaissance" in the United States in the years before Fukushima. These factors included the increasing cost of reactors, the recession, the growing viability of other renewables, and the failure of the United States to adopt sufficient climate-change regulation, which would have weakened the attractiveness of fossil fuels.  Safety concerns after Fukushima, of course, made this problem worse. Popular approval of new nuclear power plants in the United States, having climbed to 57% approval in 2008, dipped to a level lower than that which immediately followed Three Mile Island - a paltry 43% approved in March of 2011, while 50% disapproved. Approval had been generally climbing since Chernobyl, particularly, and a single incident on the other side of the globe negated all that gained favor (Figure 1). Nuclear power is a largely stable and safe power source, but public approval of the method is as volatile as the material at its core. Especially in the United States, where nuclear power is a hot-button issue, it is unlikely that nuclear power can go long enough without incident to establish a large enough presence such that it reaches its full potential as a global power source.
All this talk of volatility and lack of viability is not intended to relay a wholly pessimistic outlook, however. Though it is unlikely that nuclear power gains and retains the support it needs to come into its own, its proponents and its presence are tenacious. As previously discussed, Italy, though currently back in a state of non- approval for nuclear power, reversed its referendum phasing out the power source eventually. It may have taken over two decades, but outlooks do change, and eventually nations such as Italy allow the rational benefits of nuclear power to overshadow a distant fluke. This trend was also seen in the United States, as public approval climbed gradually after Chernobyl. Perhaps most significantly for the United States, nuclear reactors are managing to gain approval for construction again. In February 2012, less than a year after Fukushima, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of two nuclear power plants in Georgia. No new nuclear power plants gained such approval since after the incident on Three Mile Island, making this the first okay in over thirty years. 
Nuclear power generation holds the same potential that it did, well, a generation or two ago. It is a clean and largely stable energy source, and certainly a viable renewable to help wean the globe off fossil fuels. However, thanks to the potential nuclear technology carries for destruction in the eyes of the public, it has experienced a temperamental relationship with the public and the world. A minor incident in Pennsylvania with no casualties, an accident in the Soviet Union, and, most severely, a "disaster" in Japan that only occurred thanks to an earthquake and a tsunami have all had a negative impact on the viability of nuclear power as a widely accepted implemented power source. The governments of the world and the publics they represent are quick to distance themselves from nuclear power following such incidents, and though its standing improves after the fact, it seems that another accident will always be on deck. No matter the amount of time in between, each subsequent accident will have a similar negative effect. In the meantime, the nuclear power industry will grow slowly and establish new footing, but volatility in perception and understanding of the industry and technology will forever keep nuclear power from reaching its full potential.
© Greg Ramel. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.
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