03/16/2011 10:21 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

China Syndrome Hits Japan

The meltdown of three reactor cores at Tokyo Electric's Fukushima nuclear power station in the tsunami and earthquake devastated area of northeastern Japan is already reverberating around the world's nuclear power industry.

Just as many countries were looking for nuclear power to play a growing role in meeting their future energy needs, the world is suddenly looking at the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

It's not a coincidence the countries rely heavily on nuclear power. They are generally the one's that lack their own hydrocarbon resources, which in the absence of nuclear power, forces strategic dependence on foreign oil gas or coal supplies.

Japan, the world's third largest oil-consuming economy, fits that bill perfectly. It imports virtually all of the more than four million barrels of oil it consumes every day.
Given its total dependence on imported oil, Japan relies on nuclear for about a third of its power generation with 54 nuclear power generating stations scattered throughout the country.

If the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 near Harrisburg, Penn. is any guide, the real impact of what's happening at the Fukushima power plant will be felt for decades. Overnight, the Three Mile Island accident undermined public confidence in the safety of nuclear power. There hasn't been a new greenfield nuclear power station built in the U.S. for decades. And the nuclear disaster in Japan is now sure to put the kibosh on hopes of any nuclear renaissance in America.

In the U.S.'s case, natural gas and coal has filled the gap for power generation since the Three Mile Island accident. You can bet that U.S. proponents of shale gas will be quick to compare the much-maligned environmental impact of their resource with the environmental impact of a core meltdown at a nuclear power plant.

Japan, however, doesn't have domestic hydrocarbon resources on hand. Neither do a lot of other countries.

Nowhere is the fallout from the Fukushima accident going to be bigger than in China and India. China's latest Five Year Plan calls for a tripling of the country's 13 currently operating nuclear power plants. At the same time, India has plans to buy 21 nuclear reactors.

Shreyans Kumar Jain, chairman of the state-run monopoly Nuclear Power Corp. of India, already conceded that Japan's nuclear accident, only a month shy of the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, could put a big damper on his country's nuclear expansion plans.

And China, like Japan, has been the site of many of the world's most devastating quakes. A 7.5 magnitude quake in Tangshan killed 250,000 in 1976 and at least 87,000 more perished in a recent quake in Sichuan in 2008.

As Japan's nuclear disaster starts to rein in other countries' nuclear power plans, our dependence on hydrocarbons just got that much greater.