The nuclear crisis and fears of spreading radiation in Japan created a panic in world markets Tuesday while throwing a dark cloud over the nuclear industry and plans in the U.S. and Europe to start a nuclear renaissance.
Though the American-made reactors in Japan withstood one of the strongest earthquakes in history, they succumbed unexpectedly when the backup power generators they depended on to cool the reactor fuel were washed away by the powerful tsunami that shattered much of Japan's northeast coast.
With no way to cool the red-hot fuel rods except with improvised use of firetrucks pumping ocean water into the reactor core, a partial meltdown in four units at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power complex was under way, releasing at times dangerous levels of radiation into the air and threatening to contaminate millions who live on the coast.
As the horrifying story unfolded in Japan, markets from Tokyo to Wall Street reacted violently to what appeared to be the worst nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 in Ukraine, selling off the stocks of companies that do business in Japan and nuclear-industry manufacturers like General Electric, which designed the stricken plants in Fukushima.
Japan's Nikkei stock index plummeted an additional 11 percent in its third-largest drop in history, after a 6.2 percent dive on Monday, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost as much as 200 points before regaining some composure to end the day down 138 points at 11,855.
The European Union was the fastest to react to the possibility of unforeseen hazards affecting the continent's 143 nuclear plants, decreeing that all should undergo stress tests in coming months.
Germany moved seven of its aging plants offline, and said it might retire some early. Switzerland suspended plans to replace and build new nuclear plants pending a review of what happened in Japan. France, the nation most heavily dependent on nuclear power, ordered safety checks of its 58 reactors.
In the U.S., with nuclear plants located in seismically active coastal areas such as California, there was no immediate reaction to test or close down any of the nation's 104 nuclear plants, although two key members of the Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill were pressing for action.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with Democrats, said Sunday the U.S. should "put the brakes" on new nuclear plants until events play out in Japan. And Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, urged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission not to approve a Westinghouse-designed power plant that he said was susceptible to earthquakes.
The White House continued to portray nuclear power as a critical component of the administration's strategy for reducing greenhouse gases. Nuclear plants, when they are operating safely, produce no air emissions other than water vapor.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that U.S. reactors are safe and designed to withstand the worst natural disasters envisioned at their sites of operation. But he said he was studying whether any further safety measures might be needed in light of Japan's experience.
"It's probably premature to say anything except we will learn from this," he said. "We have to take a hard look. Were there any lessons learned from this tragedy that can further improve the safety of our existing reactors?"
Committee chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, noting that nuclear plants currently provide one-fifth of U.S. electricity, said the nation will continue to need them, among diverse power sources, and expressed confidence that they will remain safe and reliable.
But given how fragile the nuclear renaissance in the U.S. has been, with only a couple of reactors in Georgia even nearing construction after a 30-year building drought, private analysts say the incident has dealt a devastating blow to the industry and its hopes for the future.
"A disaster of this magnitude is inevitably going to reopen the nuclear debate in many countries," said Andrew Moulder, analyst at CreditSights. "We expect the incident to slow the nuclear renaissance. It will certainly give weight to the arguments of anti-nuclear lobbying groups."
Environmental groups were jubilant that the crisis is throwing a monkey wrench into plans on the drawing board to construct new plants in several states.
Damon Moglen from Friends of the Earth said the crisis should serve to deep-six the relicensing of Vermont's controversial Vermont Yankee power plant, which he said uses the same technology as the stricken plants in Japan.
"I don’t think that proposal is going to survive the searing images we’ve seen this weekend," he said.
Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, added he thought the "prospects are very dim" for the congressional authorization of loan guarantees to the industry. Without loan guarantees, analysts say no new construction would be viable.
CreditSight's Mr. Moulder said nuclear's future seems most in doubt in Europe, where the opposition has been fiercest and most effective despite a minor revival under way in some countries.
"The economics and financing of new nuclear were always going to be difficult, but if additional design modifications and increased safety measures are sought, this could make the economics unworkable," he said.
In the U.S., where three reactors have the same base design as the Japanese plants, "we also expect pressure to slow or stop nuclear construction," Mr. Moulder said.
While aging U.S. plants conceivably could encounter problems like those in Japan, industry officials emphasize that the newest generation of technology avoids the pitfall of relying on power-operated pumps for cooling, relying instead on natural forces like gravity to deliver the cooling water.
Tony Pietrangelo, senior vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said that U.S. plants have more safeguards than Japanese plants. For example, most have buried underground the diesel-fuel tanks they need for backup generators, meaning they could not be washed away in a flood like the ones in Japan.
He said he doesn't foresee obstacles either to the relicensing of plants more than 40 years old or to the building of new plants in the U.S.
"New plant construction will be unaffected by this, given where they're located" — in Southern states with no history of the kind of extreme seismic activity seen in Japan, he said. "We're very confident in the robustness of these plants."
• Shaun Waterman contributed to this report.
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