The unfolding crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is, of course, not just a problem for Japan alone.
The future of the peaceful use of nuclear energy around the world rests with how effectively this country can cope with the situation.
Because of a nearly unimaginable natural disaster ― a devastating earthquake and ensuing colossal tsunami ― the Fukushima plant’s reactors, which were credited as among the world’s best in terms of safety, are now in a wretched condition.
Up until the current crisis, nuclear power was undergoing a positive reevaluation globally as a clean energy source emitting no greenhouse gases, and construction work on new nuclear plants was under way in many parts of the world.
The trouble at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has thrown cold water on what was being called a “nuclear energy renaissance.”
In the aftermath of the disaster, the European Union decided to put all nuclear plants within its jurisdiction under review to check their earthquake resistance and other safety arrangements.
In Germany, where 17 nuclear plants are in operation, seven that were built in 1980 or earlier have suspended operations for three months.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government previously had decided to extend the lifetime of the existing nuclear reactors, in a reversal of the previous administration’s policy. But now the possibility has arisen that Germany may once again reverse its nuclear energy policy.
In a regional election in the western German state of Saarland on Sunday, the Greens, an ecologically oriented party, made major headway against a backdrop of a surge in antinuclear public opinion.
At the time of the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear crisis and also after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, misgivings about the safety of nuclear power plants became widespread in the United States and European countries, forcing them to put construction plans for new nuclear power plants on hold.
From the standpoint of protecting energy security and fighting global warming, however, nuclear power plants, as long as they are managed safely, are certain to remain an important source of electric power.
About 30 countries now have nuclear power plants in operation, and about a dozen more have them under construction or on the drawing board.
In the United States, which has more nuclear power plants than any other nation, some members of Congress have called for a freeze on the construction of new nuclear power plants.
U.S. President Barack Obama, however, has remained committed to his policy of encouraging nuclear power generation, saying Washington needs to “take lessons learned from what’s happening in Japan.”
France, which has the second largest number of nuclear power facilities, has vowed to go ahead with its construction plans for new facilities. Its sale of reactors to other countries also is continuing as scheduled. South Korea also has kept its posture of encouraging nuclear power generation unchanged.
Many countries, including such emerging economies as China and India, would find it extremely difficult to meet fast-growing demand for energy without making use of nuclear power plants.
Under the circumstances, it is imperative for the international community to firmly ensure the safety of nuclear power generation.
Should the release of radioactive material from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant continue, the problem could develop into a profoundly grave international issue.
Japan must bring the nuclear crisis under control as quickly as possible by sharing relevant information with other members of the international community and asking for cooperation from nuclear experts from around the world.
Making utmost efforts in this regard is the sole way for Japan to maintain international confidence in the viability of nuclear power.