Two weeks ago Maven conducted a short survey of nuclear power and radiation safety experts regarding the events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. The survey was conducted one day after northeastern Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, when only a single reactor was experiencing difficulties. Based on what was known at the time, our experts expressed three overarching sentiments:
- The event was relatively minor and the situation had been over-hyped by the mass media.
- The reactor would take between 2 days and 2 weeks to stabilize, with minimal damage and very little or no radiation leakage.
- The event would be a major setback to the global nuclear power industry.
Maven recently followed up with the same experts who responded to our original survey to find out how their opinions changed. This time we asked them three follow-up questions:
- What is your opinion of the media’s portrayal of the events in Fukushima?
- How has your opinion of the severity of the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi facility changed over the past two weeks?
- What are the long-term implications of the events in Fukushima on the future of the nuclear power industry, both in Japan and in the United States?
Media Over-hype, but…
The first question asked the respondents to select a response on five-point scale, with options ranging from the situation being MUCH WORSE than the media has portrayed to MUCH BETTER than the media has portrayed. Over three quarters of the experts indicated that they believe the situation is SOMEWHAT BETTER or MUCH BETTER than the media has portrayed, indicating a strong sentiment that the media continues to over-hype the situation.
On the other hand, most respondents were more circumspect in their latest comments. Whereas in the previous survey, the respondents had almost unanimously stated that the media was grossly sensationalizing the severity of the problems in Fukushima, this time the prevailing sentiment was that the media response was only somewhat exaggerated.
The escalation of events in Japan was clearly unanticipated by our respondents, as shown in comments like:
…the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi facility is more serious than I had originally perceived it to be.
…much worse that I previously thought.
…the reactors were not in as good shape as I originally thought, however nowhere near as bad as the media was portraying it.
…the situation has become more serious and more layered and complex.
The breach of secondary containment in the third reactor was unexpected, and the resulting leak of radiation is serious.
Still, most respondents placed the blame for the situation on the response to the emergency rather than inherent safety issues with the plant’s design:
I had also thought that the Japanese government would have done a better job explaining the situation to the public. It appears that emergency response was much less prepared than I would have expected. Even worse, the information coming from the Japanese government has been confusing and contradictory…
The severity is increasing due to the effects of the tsunami and inability to mobilize equipment. Fire trucks and helicopters are extremely primitive means but the only available…
Difficult Time Ahead for Nuclear Power
Whereas in our previous survey the respondents disagreed to some extent on the overall impact of Fukushima on the nuclear power industry, this time there was nearly universal agreement that the industry will suffer greatly. One respondent summed up the outlook as follows:
The long term implications for nuclear power will be to dampen what had been a global rennaissance in public opinion for nuclear power, especially in Japan. It will be a very difficult situation for Japan, which gets almost 40% of its power from nuclear and doesn’t have much in the way of natural resources. Balancing public opinion, the need for safety and the realities for the country and its economy will be very tricky and it will also place a further challenge on the Japanese economy. For the balance of the world I believe this will knock out some of those countries that were seriously reconsidering nuclear (Sweden, Germany). It will also put a damper on new construction in some countries by emboldening old opponents who have a plethora of new images to use in their opposition (most likely the US).
Some foresee a more muted impact, mostly as a result of the practical implications of accelerating global energy demand:
The Japanese will not abandon nuclear power, although the 14 units currently planned will be delayed or might even be canceled. The rest of the developing world will continue to build nuclear power plants because they need the electricity. China and India will lead this effort. The Chinese have plans to build another 50-75 reactors and are investing $150 billion to accomplish this task.
Overall, however, the industry has a long road ahead to win back public opinion:
Only if the public can be convinced that other plants are materially and demonstrably more secured by fail-safe systems than the Tepco plants might future plants be considered.
Full results of the survey are available upon request. If you are interested in seeing all responses, please contact Maven.
If you are a member of the media and would like to talk to some of the experts that participated in the survey, please contact Chuck Hester at firstname.lastname@example.org.