Thursday, March 17, 2011

Fukushima, Chernobyl, and U.S.

While the people of Japan continue to deal with the devastation of the massive earthquake and tsunami last week, the tragedy there has reignited the debate over nuclear power worldwide.  As the Washington Post reports, in the wake of the growing nuclear emergency in Japan, Germany announced that it will shut down seven of its older plants for safety inspections, and Switzerland declared a freeze on new nuclear construction.

At the same time, U.S. Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials assured Congress of the safety of the domestic nuclear fleet, as did leaders in France of theirs.

Nuclear energy inevitably elicits strong responses from both sides of the aisle.  Whether it is Yucca Mountain or the Skull Valley Goshutes' suggestion to store waste on their reservation, rhetoric is rarely scarce when it comes to atomic power.

There is no question that the people of Japan deserve all the world can offer in this time of dire need, but isn't there a much deeper question here about energy policy than the immediate nuclear debate that Fukushima has elicited? 

It is one thing to invoke Chernobyl as a symbol for why nuclear energy should face a swift end -- or to assert that Fukushima "should not carry weight" in the global debate over nuclear power.

It is another entirely to ask what is at the heart of our modern energy dilemma.

That is the question we should be asking.  At a minimum, as Professor McAllister rightly noted earlier this week, it is a question about our energy consumption, and our failure to heed efficiency as a goal with the same vigor that our energy policy gives it lip service.

Even more fundamentally, however, it is a question about energy planning.  Nuclear plants provide roughly 20 percent of the United States' current electrical production.  In France, that figure is closer to 80 percent.  Turning that train around cannot happen overnight.

It could, however, happen over a longer period of time -- if we want it to. 

Fukushima is not Chernobyl.  But however bad the crisis in Japan ends up being, it should now be as clear as ever that when it comes to energy, we face hard choices. 

These choices are not necessarily dichotomies.  We can solve climate change, and nuclear power may be part of that solution -- or it might not, or it might be only for awhile.  Natural gas certainly will play a role.  Carbon capture and sequestration holds promise, if we are willing to pay the higher prices and energy penalties the technology entails.  Renewables are always there.  The number of possible resource mixes, in short, for energy production is virtually limitless.

The question, then, is not:  "Whether nuclear power?"

The question is:  "What do we want our energy future to be?"  And, correspondingly:  "Will we plan for that future, or will we leave it to chance?"

So far, the United States largely has coursed one path.  The question Fukushima poses to us is whether we are willing to chart another.

As Amory Lovins reminded nearly a decade ago, "Our energy future is...choice -- not fate."

-Lincoln Davies

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/environmental_law/2011/03/fukushima-chernobyl-and-us.html

Climate Change, Current Affairs, Economics, Energy, Governance/Management, Law, Sustainability | Permalink

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