Natalie examines the problems faced by the nuclear industry and the new era of liquefied natural gas.

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 Mw tore through north-eastern Japan, bringing with it a tsunami, whose waves travelled 10km inland and reached dizzying heights of 40 m, devastating anything that stood in their path. The event literally shifted the world from its axis; estimates suggest that the earth was shifted by 10-25 cm.

The most infamous casualty of the disaster was the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.  The initial earthquake knocked out all external electricity generators, causing the plant to resort to emergency generators. The resultant tsunami then destroyed the pipe that transported water to cool the generators. Serious damage was caused in the reactor cores and explosions churned out massive amounts of nuclear material. There is still heated debate as to whether the meltdown was caused entirely by the earthquake, or whether the earthquake merely triggered a series of mechanical failures that could have been prevented if sufficient safety precautions had been taken. However, the enormity of the cold shoulder that has been turned on the nuclear industry is certain.

Germany serves as a prime example of this sudden change of opinion. The general population had been long opposed to nuclear power, but it wasn’t until the Fukushima disaster that the chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkal (who interestingly has a PhD in physics) decided it was time to pull the plug. The message was clear, if there is even a minor chance an accident so atrocious as that of March 2011 could happen again, then there is no place for that power in Germany. Nuclear power is to be phased out in Germany by 2022, and similarly in the USA all nuclear power plants in areas at risk of natural disasters are being reviewed, and their prospects look less that encouraging.

So how does all of this affect you, the consumer?

This may all seem rather irrelevant to a student who is dutifully studying in a quiet Scottish town, light-years away from the hassle of real life. So to put it in our perspective, I will list a few real life problems that I have recently found myself complaining about: expensive public transport, rising fuel prices, increased cost of food, and probably the fact that there is no Topshop in St Andrews. While the fourth one may not be a direct result of the March 2011 earthquake, the others certainly are. With the sudden shunning of nuclear power, there was an increased demand for oil and gas, and intuition suggests that this leads to higher prices. If you then fancy introducing conflict in the Middle East into this cheerful mix, you will produce a fairly hefty oil price. Oil prices are not just isolated figures, floating around financial markets with no influence on everyday life. They of course influence the prices at the petrol pump, and therefore increase transportation costs for businesses, which increases costs of goods, which leaves the consumer with less disposal income etc etc. You get the picture.

Fortunately, there may still be a saving grace for this energy crisis. Introducing… LNG (liquefied natural gas). LNG is natural gas that has been cooled to -260°F for shipment and storage. After the Fukushima disaster, Japan was left with an 8% gap in its electricity supply, which it rapidly filled with LNG imported from Indonesia and Australia. LNG can be transported to customers in areas that natural gas pipelines cannot reach. In addition, it is environmentally friendly and boasts low emission rates. These appealing factors, along with high combustion efficiency and safety advantages, make LNG a very promising fuel.  It is slightly lagging behind natural gas when it comes to costs, as the additional transportation costs (due to the non-necessity of a pipeline) prove to be fairly dear. Despite this, it is predicted that China’s imports will increase to 40 million tons a year in 2030 and even oil rich countries are using LNG to subsidies their fuel usage.

It is undoubtedly sad to see such a promising source of power collapse so quickly, but perhaps out of the rubble of the fallen nuclear heavyweights, a LNG-shaped phoenix will rise.


Natalie Keir

Image by Paul J Everett