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Japan's partial meltdowns and the future of nuclear power in the U.S.

Japan's partial meltdowns and the future of nuclear power in the U.S.

Posting in Design

Nuclear emergencies at the Fukushima plant are undoubtedly igniting concerns over the power source's safety. Updating older facilities, planning for new ones, and addressing what-if scenarios will be high priorities for a nuclear renaissance.

Many of us watched anxiously as Fukushima Daiichi facility's nuclear emergency unraveled over the weekend. The situation has added to the intense stress and heartbreak Japan has been experiencing since Friday's 8.9-magnitude earthquake and the subsequent tsunami.

The Fukushima story is still playing out. As of last night, the latest reports assumed partial meltdowns have occurred in the plant's reactors No. 1 and No. 3, where another explosion has taken place. Whatever the ultimate outcome in Japan, the world's nuclear industry will be looking inward on how to handle older facilities, plan for new ones, and address renewed public focus on safety measures and what-if scenarios.

Already in the works are passive water cooling systems, which designs for the next generation of nuclear plants often include. Such systems don't rely on a power source (such as the emergency diesel generators that failed on Friday) to keep water flowing over the hot fuel rods. Instead, the systems use the natural flow of heat via convection and gravity to prevent core meltdowns, as shown with this Westinghouse AP1000 design. Older plants in the U.S. don't have them. Without upgrades to the newer systems, nuclear plants seeking licenses to operate past* their original shut-down dates, such as Vermont Yankee, would be depending on the technologies of yesterday.

Another post today discusses using thorium to help safeguard facilities from meltdowns. And recently, coming out of France: undersea nuclear reactors. According to DCNS, its developers, the Flexblue reactor would conceptually be tsunami and earthquake proof. I think last week's events would call that claim into question.

New technology aside, how people feel is vital.

Public opinion holds significant sway on whether the next crop of plants come to fruition, especially in the U.S. Americans are known for their uneasiness over nuclear power. Major concerns include storing its radioactive waste, about keeping plutonium out of the wrong hands, and repeats of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl-type disasters. Still, in regard to energy independence and greenhouse gases, the benefits of nuclear fission have slowly softened Americans' overall attitudes toward a possible nuclear renaissance. Obviously, nuclear power's potential dangers are currently undergoing their own renaissance in many people's thoughts.

This Wednesday, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee will meet to discuss President Obama's budget proposal of $36 billion in loan guarantees for 20 new nuclear plants. Rep. Markey, the New York Times reports, suggests a moratorium on building facilities in seismically active areas. I think filing that in the duh category would at least ease some minds.

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Image: Flickr/cncphotos

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure