The Unclear Fate of Nuclear Power (Smithsonian)


Germany and Switzerland have decided to phase out nuclear power, and many other nations are reassessing their nuclear ambitions. (Photo credit: Flickr user Bagalute)

When one of the earth’s great tectonic plates thrust under another off the east coast of Japan in March 2011, it generated a violent earthquake and set off a tsunami with waves that reached heights of 20 feet or more. This devastating combination left tens of thousands of people dead and set off a nuclear crisis when seawater flooded the site of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, cutting power and disabling backup safety equipment.

Crews were unable to keep the reactors cool, which led to fuel melting, hydrogen explosions and the release of radioactive material. More than nine months passed before authorities announced the reactors had been brought to a stable state of cold shutdown. Safety concerns also led to the shutdown of nearly all of Japan’s other nuclear plants.

The Fukushima event—the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986—has cast a shadow over atomic energy and the industry’s burgeoning hopes for a “nuclear renaissance.” […] Yet for an increasingly energy-hungry world, nuclear remains a tantalizingly reliable, carbon-free power source, and an attractive way to diversify energy supplies and move away from sources including coal that contributes to climate change.


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