This essay is quite different from what I would have written pre-Fukushima but it's pretty hard at the moment to think about anything nuclear from a different reference point. Fukushima has reopened the global discussion about the future of nuclear power. Several factors had led many countries to consider expanding their nuclear capacity, reversing phaseouts or initiating new nuclear programs. These include a very good safety and reliability record for the last decades, increasing concern about the risks of climate change and a concomitant recognition that enormous amounts of additional electric generating capacity will be needed without increasing greenhouse gas and other polluting emissions. Exactly how the new debate will end will remain unclear for some time, as the events and responses in Japan are investigated and understood fully, and as safety systems, operating procedures, regulatory oversight, emergency response plans and spent fuel management are reexamined for currently operating reactors.
Nevertheless, some outcomes are a good bet: the cost of doing business at nuclear reactors will go up; and the expected relicensing of forty-year-old nuclear plants for another twenty years of operation will be given a hard look. Indeed even the license extensions already granted for the majority of the 104 plants operating in the U.S. might be revisited. These plants, like those at Fukushima, rely to a large extent on active safety systems in case of accidents or natural disasters.