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Even if Japan brings the steaming Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor under control, fallout from the earthquake-caused accident threatens the world’s energy balance. America’s nuclear industry has never really recovered from the relatively harmless Three Mile Island mishap in 1979. The price of a decline in Japan’s ardor for nuclear power would be higher coal and natural gas prices.

Public confidence in nukes always hangs by a delicate thread. The industry can ill afford even the smallest mishap. Even though the prospect of a full-scale meltdown at Japan’s malfunctioning nuclear plant now looks remote, plenty of damage may already have been done. And Japan is one of the giants of the world nuclear industry, producing almost 30 per cent of its electricity from the source. Ambitions to boost this to 50 per cent by 2030 may now be called into question.

If so, the implications would be truly global. The growing world hunger for energy is already likely to strain supplies over coming decades. By 2030 consumers and businesses worldwide will be gobbling up 35 per cent more energy than in 2005, according to Exxon Mobil. That leaves little margin for error. Furthermore, until renewable sources become more economical and scalable, the nuclear industry is the biggest source of low carbon electrical energy. If atomic energy growth is retarded it will become harder to balance rising energy demand with a desire to avoid cooking the world’s atmosphere.

Nuclear enthusiasts will point out that Japan’s accident needn’t deter others. After all, most other big nuclear nations — notably France — don’t face big seismic risks. Such nuances may be lost on members of the public, however. A renaissance in the US nuclear industry — still the largest in absolute terms — looks even less likely than a week ago. Even a minor scaling back of Japan’s nuclear ambitions could be enough to shift the global energy balance by forcing the country to rely more on natural gas.

The public demands nothing less than perfection from the nuclear industry in terms of safety. That’s particularly true in Japan, the only nation to have endured a nuclear attack. Fear of radiation is deep-seated in the country — just look at its great cinematic export, Godzilla movies. So a minor lapse could prove a big setback — one that makes meeting the world’s voracious demand for energy look still more intimidating.