NEW YORK (Reuters) - Even the most ardent defenders of nuclear power are starting to admit the situation in Japan looks bad.
The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi complex is now generally held to be significantly bigger than the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. Some fear it could yet become as grave as the explosion that tore apart the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine in 1986 and spewed a radioactive cloud over Europe.
While the believers in the promise of nuclear energy haven’t yet become non-believers they are more questioning than they were and in an increasing number of cases are willing to acknowledge that the disaster reflects poorly on the industry.
On March 14, the Wall Street Journal carried an opinion piece from author William Tucker condemning those who were expressing concern about nuclear safety when there was the full devastation from the earthquake and tsunami to focus on.
“With all the death, devastation and disease now threatening tens of thousands in Japan, it is trivializing and almost obscene to spend so much time worrying about damage to a nuclear reactor,” said Tucker, whose 2008 book “Terrestrial Energy” is an argument for nuclear power.
On Thursday, Tucker told Reuters the situation had changed since his article.
“I think that story probably has to be revised, we seem to be in deeper water now than we were originally,” he said. “I think we are facing another Chernobyl now or something on that order.”
Tucker remains an advocate for the promise of nuclear power, but he acknowledges there is an engineering challenge that has to be addressed.
“There’s going to be a lot of rethinking,” he said. “The point I’ve been making to people is that nuclear is an evolving technology.”
Tucker is not alone. It has become hard for proponents of nuclear energy to ignore the blown-out roofs, damaged container vessels, compromised spent fuel pools and clouds of radioactive steam -- and the resulting terror that has swept Japan.
That is starting to reshape the message about the advantages of nuclear power, for America and the world.
“Nothing is worse than fear and nothing sells like fear. If you’re an anti-nuclear advocate this is perfect to use to drum up fear -- ‘let’s shut them down, this could happen here,'” said Michael Sitrick, chairman of the public relations firm Sitrick & Co. and a top name in crisis communications.
They’re going to use Japan to say ‘tell me there’s no difference,’ and it’s up to the industry to say ‘oh yes there is,'” Sitrick said.
Those who spoke out early to play down what was going on at the Tokyo Electric Power Co complex may now be reconsidering their words, or at least the strength of them.
One prominent change of view that has made the rounds of the Internet in the last few days came from risk management expert Josef Oehmen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Oehmen sent an email to family and friends following the earthquake, which made its way to a blog and became a viral sensation online. In the mail, he attempted to explain how the reactor and its safety procedures worked, and why the sum total of information suggested his family in Japan would be safe.
What ensued was a firestorm, as people accused Oehmen of getting his facts wrong, being a nuclear shill and trying to mislead the public.
Subsequently Oehmen issued an explanatory note on the blog, and the original posting was moved to a website run by MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, where it has since been updated and edited.
“Whether my unwavering trust in my fellow engineers of 50 years ago who designed and build the plant, or my complete trust and admiration of my fellow engineers who are currently operating the reactors makes me a level-headed guy or right-out stupid is also hotly debated. Most people hope for the former, but some opt for the latter,” Oehmen said the explanatory note.
Sitrick’s colleague Lew Phelps, a veteran of public relations in the energy industry, said it is now incumbent on the American nuclear power lobby to take a proactive stance and make the point that what happened in Japan cannot, for a variety of reasons, happen here.
“It would be very easy for the U.S. nuclear industry, to whatever extent it’s being raised as an issue, to differentiate U.S. power plants from Chernobyl,” Phelps said.
The nuclear lobby has at least begun that effort, though at the same time it admits that it faces some challenges.
The Nuclear Energy Institute is the policy arm of the nuclear technology industry. The home page of its website offers no fewer than three different links to the same mostly optimistic information page on the disaster in Japan.
In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, NEI executives said they were hard at work meeting with legislators and policymakers to answer their questions and push for the development of new reactors domestically.
Yet even as they struck an upbeat note on future reactor construction, they also admitted there will be roadblocks.
“I think this certainly will complicate already very complicated efforts to put together energy legislation in the Senate,” said Alex Flint, senior vice president of governmental affairs for the NEI.
The NEI is in many ways doing what any trade group would do, defending its industry in a time of crisis.
But even those who follow the NEI’s work, and believe in it, say there is little positive to be said right now, given all that is happening in Japan.
“I’ve been a supporter of nuclear power for years, and all I can say is, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” said Noel Corngold, an emeritus physics professor at CalTech with more than 50 years’ experience in academia.
Reporting by Ben Berkowitz, editing by Martin Howell