When Japan suffered an earthquake measuring 9.1 degrees on the Richter Scale on March 11, it was the second strongest ever registered in the world — exceeded only by a quake in Valdivia, Chile, in 1960, which had an intensity of 9.5 degrees.

Last month’s earthquake and ensuing tsunami damaged Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, leading to significant radioactive leaks. Since then, the world has been riveted by Japan’s nuclear crisis, and the disaster has sparked a global debate about the security of nuclear installations, notes Alfonso Guijón, project director at POCH, a Chilean consultancy for engineering and environmental projects. "That’s because it revealed that a nuclear power plant in a developed country, using current technology, was unable to withstand a natural disaster, leading to partial leaks in four of its six reactors." The Japanese government has begun its evacuation plan within a radius of 200 kilometers [120 miles] surrounding the plant, he adds, "because the radioactive contamination is affecting people, animals, food and water — although the true consequences remain to be seen."

Until the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan was an ideal example of an earthquake-prone country that could rely on its nuclear power plants for the secure generation of electricity, notes José Miguel Sánchez, professor at the Institute of Economics at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. "However, this entire paradigm is now subject to doubt."

That’s why Peru, which has a long history of earthquakes, hastened to announce as a result of the Japanese disaster that it would do without nuclear power plants when it develops its energy matrix. According to a recent statement by President Alan Garcia, "Since Peru has so many different resources for hydroelectricity, natural gas and petroleum, [the country] commits itself today – and for the next 100 years – to be free of nuclear development; all the more so because we consider ourselves a country of earthquakes."

Chile has also been thrashed by intense earthquakes over its history — the most recent being the earthquake and tsunami of February 27, 2010, which ravaged the southern coast of the country, leaving thousands of people homeless and destroying all local activity in the tourism, fishing and handicraft sector. Now Chile is moving in the completely opposite direction of its neighboring Peru.

Chile’s Nuclear Gamble

On February 24, Laurence Golborne, Chile’s minister of mining and energy, signed a huge cooperative agreement on nuclear power with France, which derives 74% of its energy from nuclear energy. As France’s minister of industry and energy Eric Besson said, "We are going to put into action an unrestricted institutional effort to cooperate with Chile in its efforts to deal with" nuclear power.

Only a few weeks later, the Chilean government signed another cooperative agreement, this time with the United States, involving research and training of human personnel for developing nuclear energy. It came amidst a raging controversy in which politicians, ordinary citizens, and environmental managers [in Chile] are questioning the measure, while marches and demonstrations are becoming more prominent. Chilean President Sebastian Piñera defended the initiative, explaining to the local media that "we cannot be afraid of learning more about all sources of energy. This agreement aims to bolster research and training of personnel involved in nuclear energy."

According to the media, the goal of the [Chilean] government is to establish the foundations for technical and professional training on nuclear energy in that country over the next decade, during which authorities will "probably" decide that the country needs to equip itself with nuclear power plants.

Nevertheless, for Chilean public opinion, the Fukushima nuclear emergency has created a powerful emotional barrier when it comes to establishing nuclear power plants in the future, notes Claudio Tenreiro, professor of engineering at the University of Talca, Chile. "Generally speaking, people feel very vulnerable, and there is a mix of images from the terrible events in Japan — from the thousands of victims caught in the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, and the disaster in the Fukushima power plant." As a result, he notes, "it makes sense that [the idea of] developing nuclear power would awaken great opposition in the population."

Beyond that, the Japanese nuclear drama has revived memories of the Three Mile Island disaster in the U.S. (1979) and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986, notes Guijón. "Although the accidents experienced in those places were the product of technical and human failures, the process of questioning the safety of nuclear plants is exactly the same, and valid for what happened in Fukushima, which was caused by a tsunami."

In contrast, Sebastián Bernstein, managing partner of Synex, a Chilean energy consultancy, argues that from a technical point of view, "a modern nuclear reactor that is well situated should have not involve the same risks as what happened in Fukushima," where the plant began to operate in 1971 and was slated to cease operations in 2011. You have to consider the fact, he notes, that "there have been significant advances in the design of the latest generation of nuclear reactors."

Hugh Rudnick, professor of electrical engineering at the Catholic University of Chile, takes a similar view. He argues, "Third-generation nuclear power plants have what is called ‘passive shutdown,’ which avoids having the reactor shutdown process depend on auxiliary services, such as in the case of the [emergency] diesel generators at the plant in Fukushima, which wound up being damaged by the tsunami." It was the lack of electricity that prevented proper functioning of the refrigeration systems of the operational nuclear reactors, leading to the disaster in the plant.

A Challenge for Growth

Rudnick affirms that nuclear energy is an alternative that Chile must look into, "given that the country’s long-term supply of electricity unfortunately does not have many alternative sources." Hydroelectric resources, unconventional renewable energy, and coal – all available in Chile — "all offer guaranteed opportunities but they are [also] associated with serious disadvantages."

Chilehas hydroelectricity resources that have yet to be exploited, bordering on 20,000 MW a year, notes Rudnick. Half of those resources are located in Patagonia, in the south of the country. Nevertheless, "this resource will not be sufficient to handle the economic development of the country, considering that demand for energy in Chile is expected to double by 2025."

Sources of unconventional renewable energy, such as solar power, wind and geothermal power, are still very expensive to serve as alternative supplies of energy on a massive scale in Chile. "In addition," he notes, "they are intermittent; so we would require thermal back-up at night when our solar generators do not operate. On the other hand, renewable energy sources alone have the potential to contribute from 15% to 20% of the energy network of the country."

Another interesting alternative is coal, argues Rudnick, "since there are great volumes of that mineral in Chile, and there are no geopolitical risks involved in its supply chain, unlike the petroleum or liquid natural gas (LNG) that we import at high, volatile prices." However, coal pollutes a great deal, and in a world increasingly worried about carbon footprints, he warns, if Chile "carbonizes" its energy matrix even more, then the country’s competitive position, both on a regional and global scale, will deteriorate.

Given all of the above concerns, nuclear energy emerges as an attractive possibility compared with coal, comments Rudnick. "With average costs that are slightly higher than coal, it has the great advantage of being an abundant source of energy that does not emit greenhouse gas and which, in order for Chile to develop itself, will help by de-carbonizing the country’s energy grid."

For these reasons, authorities in Chile have decided to move ahead with their research into nuclear energy, explains Bernstein, as a way to decide whether it is a valid option for the country’s future economic growth. "Actually, Peru never studied this topic, and discarded it easily, because Peru can rely on a lot of natural gas and hydroelectric power." But if Chile wants to continue to grow by between 4% and 5% a year, notes Sánchez, it cannot dismiss any sort of energy a priori. "The authorities must study all of the possibilities, with their costs and benefits, and then make decisions that take all that into account." Nevertheless, Rudnick recognizes that the great weakness of nuclear energy is that it is perceived as extremely risky given the latest accident that occurred in Japan. "That needs to be evaluated in order to determine the risks and decide if there are real opportunities for developing nuclear energy in Chile, in ways that provide guarantees to the population."

In fact, Noam Lior, a professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania who studies energy and the environment, believes public safety is one of the major risks of nuclear energy that policymakers from any country need to consider. This, along with another two: long-term nuclear waste and proliferation. The events in Japan have highlighted the dangers of nuclear accidents, which are rare, but which become "a raging problem" when they do occur. They have also highlighted the problem of waste storage, since one of the biggest risks at Fukushima has been linked to the spent fuel rods.

While there are risks associated with fossil fuels — such as air pollution, mining accidents or oil spills – nuclear power is unique in that it passes its risks on to the next generation in the form of radioactive waste. And with the threat of terrorism ever present, the cost of securing nuclear facilities keeps increasing. "Each problem has some solution, but each solution [also] costs money," Lior says. "Just building without solutions is not a good idea."

The crisis in Japan can become a "pivotal moment" to re-evaluate the true risks of nuclear energy and how it is regulated, says Howard Kunreuther, co-director of Wharton’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. Part of that re-thinking should be the risks not only of nuclear energy but of other forms of energy as well. Several experts point out that nuclear power’s worst disaster, the 1986 Chernobyl accident, will eventually kill about 10,000 people, mostly from cancer. Yet pollution from coal, which currently supplies 45% of the U.S. supply of energy, kills 10,000 people in this country every year.

"With any energy source, there are risks involved," points out Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor Eric W. Orts, who also directs Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership. Solar panels require mining of materials, wind power blocks views and kills birds, and geothermal was thought to be safe at first, but now appears to increase the chance of earthquakes, he notes. Orts says that "really the best solution to problems is energy efficiency." And that, he adds, comes with no risk at all.