Wednesday, March 16, 2011

New Questions arise after the Japanese Nuclear Crisis

Academics and nuclear experts agree the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors are grave, and the solutions being proposed are last-ditch efforts to stem what could well be remembered as one of the world's worst industrial disasters.

Conditions at a stricken nuclear power plant in Japan have deteriorated so much that there is a growing consensus the crisis is greater than the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, and there are fears that it could get significantly worse.

All six reactors at the complex have problems; be it blown-out roofs, potentially cracked containment structures, exposed fuel rods or just the risk of explosion that has been great enough to force emergency measures. Of particular concern are a fire in a massive pool holding spent atomic fuel rods and a blast at the building housing the pool and reactor No.4. The pool is exposed to the elements, unlike the reactor core protected in steel and concrete.

The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 was the biggest in U.S. history. Half of the reactor core in one unit melted due to the loss of coolant, though it resulted in no immediate injuries.

The Chernobyl accident in Ukraine in 1986 was the worst in the industry's history, as an explosion led to a cloud of radioactive material being spewed over big parts of Europe.

Several experts said that Japanese authorities were underplaying the severity of the incident, particular on a scale called INES used to rank nuclear incidents. The Japanese have so far rated the accident a four on a one-to-seven scale against Three Mile at a five and Chernobyl at a seven.

But that rating was issued on Saturday, and since then the situation has worsened dramatically.

In the past few hours alone, the plant's operator Tokyo Electric Power Co, said that a fire broke out at the building housing the No.4 reactor -- the same reactor that houses the troubled spent fuel pool.

Kyodo News reported, citing TEPCO, that the fuel rods in the No. 1 reactor were 70 percent damaged and the rods in the No. 2 reactor were 33 percent damage. Meanwhile, just after 10 a.m. local time Wednesday, Japanese TV reported white smoke coming from the plant.

Separately, Japan's nuclear safety agency said two workers are missing and disclosed that there is a crack in the roof of the same building after an earlier explosion.

Europe's Nuclear Plan under Pressure

Japan's nuclear crisis in the wake of a huge earthquake is likely to increase opposition to plans for a major nuclear expansion in Europe and focus attention on the vast potential costs of a nuclear disaster.

The crisis will reignite concern over nuclear safety as Japan fights to avert a meltdown at crippled nuclear reactors, describing the quake and tsunami, which may have killed more than 10,000 people, as its biggest crisis since World War Two.

The disaster is a setback to the nuclear industry, which is enjoying a renaissance as public fears over nuclear safety have faded along with memories of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States and Ukraine's 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Many countries plan new nuclear power plants, regarding nuclear as a clean alternative to expensive and dwindling oil and gas and saying new technology should allay safety fears.

But anti-nuclear campaigners around Europe have seized on the Japanese accident as evidence of the dangers of nuclear power and said governments should rethink plans for new plants.

"I think it will make a lot of governments, authorities and other planners think twice about planning power stations in seismic areas," said Jan Haverkamp, European Union policy campaigner for environmental group Greenpeace, which opposes new nuclear reactors and wants existing ones phased out.

French reactor maker Areva and nuclear power producers EDF and GDF Suez are important industry players. France's Alstom and Schneider Electric are also active in the sector, as are Switzerland's ABB and Germany's Siemens.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government last year extended the operating lives of Germany's nuclear reactors, said the government was consulting with nuclear experts and watching the situation in Japan closely.

The Japanese radiation leak comes at a difficult time for Merkel, whose conservatives face three state elections in March where nuclear safety fears could help her opponents.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of anti-nuclear protesters formed a 45-km (27 mile) human chain from Stuttgart to a nuclear power plant that will be kept running longer because of the new policy. The protest was planned before the Japanese earthquake.

Oil will be needed to support Japan after the recent earthquake disaster. Russia has promise energy industry support to Japan, the easiest of which to implement is fuel. Clean up is going to take lots of horsepower from fuel. The Japanese electrical grid will be without electricity from nuclear generators for quite sometime. Bloomberg reported that Tokyo Electric is still seeking government approvals for a full restart of the Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear power plant (five reactors at 1,067 MW and two at 1,315 MW for a total 7,965 MW), which was shutdown after being damaged by an earthquake in 2007. The company posted its first loss in 28 years after it was forced to buy fossil fuels at record prices to make up for the lost nuclear output.

The Effect on Energy Industry

The 8.9 magnitude earthquake not only wiped out people's belongings in northern Japan, but also destroyed supply chains from various industrials. The nuclear power industry was especially hit hard due to the chain reaction resulting meltdown of the metal containers in the reactors. Numerous organizations and governments around world protect against nuclear energy as a major source of energy on this planet because it is simply not safe in such scale a disaster.

Countries such as USA, China, Japan and Australia are most susceptible to big earthquakes. It is reported that Southern California is way overdue for a big hit, it is not a question of "if" but "when." California has two operating plants: Diablo Canyon and San Onofre, both are vulnerable to earthquakes. This causes serious concerns in the region. Naturally, last week's earthquake changed the mentality of how people should approach renewable energy in the future. We will not likely give up nuclear energy, but the problem is that no safety rule is strict enough to guarantee safe operations if a big earthquake strikes. As a result, nuclear power will likely play a smaller role in the future energy market, while solar and wind energy are much more secure, safer and easy to distribute.

The Effect on Solar Industry

The earthquake also has impact on the solar energy industry. Japan accounts for 1/4th of global solar production, including solar panels and polysilicon. Most of these products are sold in domestic markets, some polysilicon is shipped overseas. The earthquake caused shutdown of production from Sanyo, Panasonic, the Kyocera Corp. and Sharp. Some facilities are not severely damaged, but what impacts the industry is the infrastructure. It is believed that at least 2-3 months will be needed to repair the power grid. Without electricity, the solar industry will remain shutdown for foreseeable future. The supply chain is not there any more. It will even take longer to repair the roads and ports in the northern coast.

Japan may have two weeks of inventory for panels and wafers. M. Setek, a solar wafer supplier, has completely shut down its facilities due to the damage caused by the earthquake. It supplies wafers to Sunpower. Companies benefiting the most are the polysilicon producers such as LDK solar and ReneSola. Both will fill the gaps left by Japanese companies. Sunpower, Sharp and Kyocera will likely have to place orders from LDK and SOL to solve the supply problem, and they may have to pay high price for the wafers. We believe Suntech power, Jinko Solar, and Trina Solar will not be affected by the shortfall, as they have long term contracts in place. Yingli green is a vertical integration company, so it is barely impacted.

The sentiment is shifting towards to solar energy as governments from Japan, China, France, Italy and Germany are considering boosting the solar energy shares in their renewable energy portfolios. People of these countries are putting lots of pressure on politicians to shift their energy policies to favor solar energy. In the next 2-3 months, new policies from the countries of major solar markets are expected to be enacted. The German government has indicated that existing nuclear plantoperations will not be extended as most Germans are opposed to nuclear power. It is certain that leaders in Japan will rigorously set policies to promote solar power as opposed to nuclear power in their next congressional meeting.

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