Like most of the world, I’ve been watching intently as the events unfold in Japan. As the nuclear crisis develops there, I cannot help but think about the implications for energy policy here in the United States.

Most people are familiar with the trajectory of nuclear power in the United States. Hailed as a new, cheap form of energy when first developed, things have stalled since Three Mile Island and strong public opposition to construction of new nuclear plants. With the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power has started to creep back into the public dialogue of viable alternatives to fossil fuels, although in the past year, economic factors, regulatory issues and design changes have slowed the pace of new reactor deployment in the United States.

Personally, I believe that there may be a place for nuclear power in the future energy mix in the United States. I had the opportunity to talk with some of the scientists researching new reactor technologies while working on a journal article on a long-standing effort by the Russians to deploy old submarine reactors on barges as a form of portable power (the basic theme of the paper — “bad idea, and not much the international community can do about it”).

There are some very interesting new technologies on the drawing boards. Small, rail-car sized modular reactors that could replace diesel power in remote areas like villages in Alaska, and other reactor technologies that address issues related to waste by improving the fuel cycle. Along with “renewable” sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal, many of these technologies have promise in addressing our future energy needs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Fukushima incident has the potential to change all of this.

Details are still emerging regarding the accident in Japan. What we know now is that the initial earthquake knocked out power to the reactor. Power is needed to control the reactor itself; without power, the plant operators are not able to control the temperature of the reactor core. Because of this, there are diesel generators onsite that provide backup if the grid power source is interrupted. Backing up those diesel generators were battery sources that apparently are good for about eight hours of operations.

The details—including the eventual severity of the accident—are still unfolding. Here is a good idea of the timeline as of this post (more can be found at the BBC):

Friday, March 11, 2011, 2:46 pm local time: The 8.9 magnitude earthquake strikes off the coast of Honshu Island. This triggers automatic shutdown of 3 of the 6 reactors at the facility (the other three were not operating at the time).

Friday, March 11, 2011, about 4 pm local time: After the initial quake, reactors 1, 2 and 3 were automatically shutting down. Power to the Fukushima facility had been cut by the quake, and diesel generators kicked on to provide power needed to supply coolant and control the reactors. Apparently these diesel generators were damaged by the tsunami following the earthquake, and the generators for reactors 1 and 2 failed about an hour after coming online.

The next 24 hours are a struggle to control the reactors at the site. An explosion at about 3:30 pm on Saturday, March 12,  blew out the building housing Reactor 1.

The latest reports at the time of the writing of this post indicate that Reactor 3 is having issues as well. I am sure this unfortunate story will continue to develop over the next days and weeks to come.

The reason for this post, however, is to talk about some of my initial thoughts on how the Fukushima accidents will shape U.S. energy policy with regard to nuclear power. My best guess is that this may be a nail in the coffin for the re-emerging nuclear industry. Already, as discussed above, the number of planned projects has been decreasing due to a variety of issues. Public perception of nuclear power is important as it drives the political support for nuclear power deployment. That perception will surely turn negative as the events in Japan unfold.

The facts surrounding the Fukushima accidents are not favorable to nuclear power. The earthquake that struck this region was not only foreseeable but certain to occur. Likewise for the tsunami that followed. It is unclear why the diesel backup generators failed, but if that was due to the tsunami as initial reports suggest, that arguably should have been considered in designing the fail-safe systems of these reactors. The Fukushima reactors themselves are 40 years old, and don’t represent the latest technology like what the United States and other nations have been developing. But, the talking points that will emerge from this accident will be strong ammunition that nuclear opponents will use to stop nuclear power development in the United States.

Fair or not, many large, controversial projects are implemented or killed based on the parties who control the dialogue and message surrounding those projects. Here, we’ll have simple sound-bites that nuclear opponents can use. Nuclear power supporters will have to respond with many “buts,” including differences in technology, the “perfect storm” of a large earthquake followed by a large tsunami, and the improbability of such an accident happening in the United States. For nuclear power on the West Coast, however, there are some parallels that are worth noting (the Pacific Northwest, for instance, will see a large subduction quake at some point in the future and is vulnerable to tsunamis). So, fair or not, this accident in Japan will likely create its own wave of anti-nuclear power sentiment that will reach the shores of the United States.

In many ways, the effects of this accident on United States nuclear energy policy can be understood by drawing a parallel to geological theories. In the middle of the 20th Century, a theory called uniformitarianism came into favor. Uniformitarianism posits that basically slow, gradual processes (such as the creep of the earth’s plates or slow erosion of mountains) form the landscapes we observe today. This theory replaced the theory of catastrophism, i.e., that the earth is shaped by sudden, catastrophic events that punctuate periods of lack of change. Most geologists (me included) subscribe to a hybrid of these two theories today, namely that there are slow gradual processes at work but that sudden, catastrophic events such as large earthquakes, major volcanic eruptions or impacts of meteorites combine with the slow gradual geologic processes to shape the earth and the environment we live in.

U.S. nuclear energy policy has largely been in an uniformitarianism mode for the past three decades. Scientists have been gradually and diligently working on new technologies. Nuclear energy advocates have been slowly building the case for nuclear power as a part of the solution to greenhouse gas emissions. Politicians have come around to the idea—and even some environmental luminaries have switched positions on nuclear power because of the need to mitigate global warming. Now, the catastrophic events at Fukushima come along—with the strong potential to upset all this work. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.