NEW YORK (Reuters) - One month on, and the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant is still creating lasting scars.
Scariest is what cannot be seen in the images of vast destruction from March 11 natural disasters that led to the nuclear crisis — namely radiation.
It could take months or years to learn how damaging the release of dangerous isotopes has been to human health, food supplies, marine life and the surrounding countryside.
The inability of Japanese authorities to regain full control of the plant will make villages nearby uninhabitable for a long time, drive people further away and risk damaging relations with neighboring countries.
For the global nuclear industry, the accident following the massive earthquake and tsunami will leave lasting sores. Some projects will be abandoned; some existing plants will close; costs will climb.
Nuclear experts say Fukushima will go down in history as the second-worst nuclear accident ever. Not as bad as Chernobyl in the Ukraine but definitely much worse than Three Mile Island in the United States.
“Fukushima is not the worst nuclear accident ever but it is the most complicated and the most dramatic,” said James Acton, Associate of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“This was a crisis that played out in real time on TV. Chernobyl did not. This crisis just goes on and on.”
A month ago, after the magnitude 9 earthquake and two-story
waves hit, the plant’s owner Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) lost control of the nuclear plant containing several hundred thousand highly radioactive fuel rods.
External power was lost, backup systems badly damaged, and the plant wasn’t designed to keep cooling the reactors and spent fuel pools without electricity.
It was not immediately clear how powerless operators were in those first days. But when the details are finally documented, the situation may well be more terrifying than anyone yet realizes.
PARTIAL MELTDOWNS & EXPLOSIONS
Clearly there were partial meltdowns in the reactors, there were explosions that blew apart major parts of the plant, and it is still not clear whether any of the reactor cores have melted through their protective steel containment vessels.
At the same time, at least one pool used to cool spent fuel rods was damaged, water that protects the rods leaked out, and a further huge radioactive danger created.
Throughout the past month, every time the authorities took measures to control one part of the plant it seemed to create problems elsewhere.
Only time will allow the industry to uncover the many as-yet unanswered questions: How did the structure initially survive the earthquake? How did workers try to address the escalating disaster? And what, if any, upgrades were done at the 1970s era plant in Japan compared to similar U.S. plants?
As the small workforce of less than 400 at the giant six-reactor site battle multiple crises, experts say it could take months to bring plant located about 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Tokyo under control and years to clean up the toxic mess.
“It will take months to address the immediate public health risks posed by the reactors and leaks of radioactive materials and years to clean up materials that have leaked and debris from the facilities,” Eric Moore, an expert on nuclear safety at FocalPoint Consulting Group in Washington, DC, said.
The Japanese government has set up a 20-kilometer (12 mile) exclusion zone around the plant, banned fishing along much of the northeast coast and set up evacuation centers for the tens of thousands forced to leave their homes.
But the consequences go far beyond Japan.
China and South Korea have become increasingly alarmed over the risk of radiation from the crippled reactors .
The disaster is also raising concerns over safety around the world, particularly in the United States, which has more reactors than any other country, and in Europe where Germany temporarily shut its seven oldest reactors.
And the nuclear industry, which before Fukushima was seen as a soldier in the fight again global warming, now has a lot of work to do to regain the public trust.
“In democratic capital market countries where public opinion matters and private industry has to go to the capital markets for funding, the growth of the nuclear industry can go from significantly slower to no growth at all,” Acton said.
“But in countries where there is not much of a democratic process and where the government can just afford to spend money, nuclear power presumably will grow slower but will not be affected that much by Fukushima,” said Acton.
In China, 27 reactors remain under construction and the government still expects to add dozens more over the next couple of decades.
The industry is working overtime to assure policymakers that atomic energy is safe, that new reactors don’t have the same flaws that allowed Fukushima to overheat after it lost all forms of power.
The new AP100 designed by Westinghouse, majority owned by Japan’s Toshiba Corp and U.S. construction firm Shaw Group Inc, uses passive safety systems rather than electric pumps and motors to shut the plant in an outage.
“The share of the AP1000s in the market will go up because more and more people around the world will see the advantages of the passive design,” Westinghouse CEO Aris Candris told Reuters. He said the firm’s construction of four reactors in China has not been halted by the events in Japan.
The nuclear industry still expects to grow in North America and around the world as a large, carbon free source of energy.
High-profile disasters in a U.S. coal mine and in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico have underscored the risks facing all forms of energy; at the same time concerns over global warming leave the world few options.
But nuclear power is expensive and construction of new reactors in some capitalist nations like the United States had slowed even before Fukushima.
“People will look back when they see that there were not many plants built this decade and will blame Fukushima, but the truth is the economics had already changed the situation,” said Joseph Romm, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress who oversees the Climate Progress blog.
“There is simply no other power source that can go from being a multibillion dollar asset to a multibillion liability in a matter of hours.”
Reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York and Eileen O'Grady in Houston; Editing by Martin Howell and Alden Bentley