The accident at
's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station is still far from resolved. A major public health disaster seems to have been avoided, and the long-term impact on health and safety will be dwarfed by the devastating loss of life caused directly by the huge Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. However, the nuclear crisis has badly scared people around the world. Japan
Antinuclear activists are calling for an end to any further nuclear development. Equally predictably, representatives for the industry say the Japanese earthquake was a once-in-a-millennium event and point to the greater safety of newer reactors.
In the wake of the accident is to assess the safety of existing nuclear power plants. Plans to extend the operating life of some 40-year-old reactors for another two decades should be reviewed, and costly upgrades may be required. We must also revisit the longstanding issue of how and where to store spent nuclear fuel. The sensible solution would be to store it in dry concrete casks at one or two central locations. Instead, decades of political dithering have produced only gridlock, so spent fuel remains in increasingly densely packed storage pools at dozens of sites around the country.
Still, the overall impact of the accident will be small here. The so-called nuclear renaissance was not really going anywhere in the
even before the Japanese earthquake. For most utilities, new nuclear plants are simply too big and expensive to contemplate. Only a few such plants would have been built over the next decade. Now some of those may be scrapped. U.S.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the atomic nucleus, and a little over 70 years since nuclear fission (when will we achieve fusion?????)
No one today can foresee the future of nuclear energy technology at the end of the 21st century. All that can be said with confidence now is that the nuclear power plants of the year 2100 will have about as much resemblance to today's workhorse light-water reactors as a modern automobile has to a 1911 Model T.
In the aftermath of
, some new technologies already in the pipeline look more promising. New fuel "cladding" materials are being developed that do not react with high-temperature steam to produce hydrogen—the cause of the shocking explosions in Fukushima . Other new plant designs rely on natural heat conduction and convection rather than electric-powered pumps and valves and human intervention to cool the fuel in reactors that have shut down. Japan
The innovators here will not be today's industry leaders or officials at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but rather the young men and women who for the last decade have been entering university nuclear engineering programs in growing numbers. They see great engineering challenges in designing new nuclear power systems that are safe and economical, and they see an opportunity to help ameliorate the grave threat of climate change. They know that nuclear energy is the only low-carbon energy source that is already generating large amounts of electricity and can meet the world's fast-growing appetite for power.