Houston: The anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that destroyed communities along the northeast coast of Japan and crippled a large nuclear plant has focused nuclear supporters and foes on safety and the future of atomic power.
In the United States, regulators on Friday issued the first formal rule changes to make nuclear plants safer based on recommendations from last year's Fukushima industry task force.
Since the March 11 disaster, nearly all of Japan's operating reactors have shut to refuel and may never restart. Several countries have questioned the safety of existing reactors and Germany has launched an ambitious plan to replace electricity from its nuclear fleet with renewable and other power sources.
"We believe nuclear power, in the long run, doesn't have any future," Johannes Kindler, vice chairman of a German regulatory agency, said at the IHS CERA energy conference in Houston this week. He said a decision to shut older German reactors was prompted by Fukushima safety concerns and cost issues.
"If you don't believe (nuclear) has a future, it's reasonable to get out as early as possible," Kindler said.
Elsewhere in the world, such as China and India, more than 60 nuclear plants are now under construction.
The United States has joined that group with the first two new US reactors in three decades.
In Georgia, Southern Co has swung into full construction activity to build two reactors of advanced design at its Vogtle station. That was after a seven-year effort to obtain a license from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the first since the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania.
"We see our role now as showing true leadership for this technology, for promoting diversity of supply, for taking a long-term view of energy supply and assuring a proper portfolio mix," Stephen Kuczynski, president of Southern Co's nuclear development arm, told Reuters during the CERAWeek conference.
The NRC is expected to issue another license soon to Scana Corp which wants to build two new reactors in South Carolina. Expectations of a dozen or more new US reactors operating within the next decade have been dashed by the specter of cheap, plentiful supplies of natural gas and a lack of federal regulation to curb carbon dioxide emissions.
In competitive power markets which cover much of the United States, the high cost of nuclear construction doesn't make economic sense with low-cost natural gas, said NRG Energy Chief Executive David Crane at CERA.
NRG abandoned its plan to build two new reactors in Texas shortly after Fukushima, citing regulatory uncertainty and deteriorating economics.
"What really made Texas a non-commercial proposition for us was the price of natural gas," said Crane, who remains a nuclear advocate but said most new plants will be built in other countries.
"New nuclear power is becoming a developing-country construct," Crane said. "I don't think that is the best outcome for world nuclear power safety. I'd love to see the United States involved in this."
The anniversary of the massive Japanese earthquake prompted numerous groups to comment on safety issues.
"Nuclear safety is stronger than it was a year ago," said Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency in a statement. "Now we have to keep up the momentum."
US nuclear safety critics, the Union of Concerned Scientists, said proposed NRC changes fail to clarify the agency's "patchwork" of emergency regulation for events that may exceed what a nuclear plant is designed to withstand.
Kuczynski hopes Southern's experience over the next few years building the Vogtle units will convince U.S. critics that nuclear power should retain its share of electric output, especially as reactors begin to reach the end of their useful lives in the 2030s.
"We will set the stage for others to move forward," Kuczynski said.
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