Will Germany be able to lead the way to ditch nuclear power?
The reason is because Germany is now vowing to accelerate plans to totally abandon use of nuclear energy - a significant step given that nearly a quarter of that nation's power is now produced by nuclear plants. Officials say they will replace nuclear power with renewable energy sources like solar and wind power.
For Germany, the Japan experience hits a little closer to home than perhaps it does in some other parts of the world. The residents of that country started becoming wary of nuclear power after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union. Radioactivity from the Chernobyl accident - considered the worst nuclear power incident so far - drifted over Germany.
Germany sees itself as a potential model for other nations wanting to move away from nuclear power, according to an Associated Press report, perhaps including the United States which generates about the same percentage of electricity from nuclear plants.
Here in America, however, the government remains officially committed to nuclear power for now. In fact, nuclear power has been experiencing something of a renaissance here due to concerns about global warming and the desire to reduce use of carbon based fuels. Nuclear power in recent years has been seen as a companion to efforts to promote renewable energy sources like solar power and wind power.
That could change, however, if public concern grows about the safety of nuclear plants. And that is a distinct possibility if the situation worsens in Japan.
Already polling is showing some loss of support. One poll showed 70 percent of Americans are now concerned about nuclear power safety. Another showed fewer than half of Americans support new nuclear plant construction after Japan's crisis, a sharp drop from the 62 percent who were in favor last year.
Moving away from nuclear power in America - or anyplace, for that matter - would not be cheap.
Huge long-term investments have been made in the facilities built across America on the assumption that nuclear power will continue to be supported. Would those who have made these investments be compensated, and if so, how?
Developing the technology and infrastructure to produce the amount of power needed from renewable sources would be hugely expensive too. It is not just a matter of putting up a wind mill to generate electricity - the lines to carry the power to where it is needed and the substations to handle its distribution would also have to be provided in many instances.
Someone will end up paying those costs and that someone will be ratepayers - and possibly taxpayers if the transition were to be subsidized. The cost of electricity could increase significantly, hardly something that will be popular with Americans. Will fears about nuclear safety offset dislike for higher energy costs?
These are the kinds of questions Germany will face and answer in the coming years as it moves to abandon nuclear power - which will take many years even under an accelerated schedule. You can't just throw the power switch off at nuclear plants without having replacement sources ready to go online.
Likely the plants will be gradually phased out, with the oldest or those considered least safe going first.
But even if the commitment to nuclear power continues, it is expected there will be major increases in the cost of electricity due to the Japan disaster. Reuters news service reported a researcher found the cost of nuclear power plant construction increased by 95 percent after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and the cost of electricity increased by 40 percents as a result. Reactor construction costs went up 89 percent after Chernobyl and electricity cost 42 percent more. Something similar will inevitably happen after the Japan catastrophe.
So, abandon nuclear power or keep it - either way it looks like all of us are going to pay a price.
Terry Ross is director of the Yuma Sun's News and Information Center. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone him at 539-6870.