Thursday, March 31, 2011
As the saga continues to unfold at Fukushima Daiichi, commentators continue to question what the disaster will mean for the future of nuclear energy. Numerous media outlets have extensive coverage, including at the Washington Post, the New York Times, the BBC, and Time.
This week's Economist has a particularly interesting article, "When the Steam Clears," which takes up the question from the international vantage. The article, in a way, begins with its conclusion: "Fear and uncertainty spread faster and farther than any nuclear fallout." Its point is clear. Whether one is on the nuclear energy bandwagon or not, perception matters terribly. And for an industry that, in the U.S. at least, has been largely stalled out for the immediate past decades, Fukushima is casting a rather long shadow.
More specifically, the article makes three observations worth highlighting:
- Nuclear is expensive. This is hardly revelatory, but the point The Economist makes with the fact is one often forgotten. It is worth remembering. As a result of nuclear's cost, most plants today are old: "[W]ith a median age of about 27 years and a typical design life of 40 a lot [of nuclear power plants] are nearing retirement."
- Nuclear is ubiquitous, if not dominant. Although the U.S. leads the world with over 100 reactors, we get about 20 percent of our electricity from them. Other nations take much more of their electricity from nuclear -- Germany at 26 percent, Japan at 29, South Korea at 35, Ukraine at 49, and, of course, France leading the globe at roughly three-quarters their total electric production. Still, the world average is much lower. "[N]nuclear power is much less fundamental to the workings of the world than petrol or aeroplanes. Nuclear reactors generate only 14% of the world’s electricity . . . ."
- Nuclear is not going away. While the disaster at Fukushima clearly has resurrected the specter of nuclear tragedy 25 years after Chernobyl and 30 post-Three Mile Island, even the dimmest of views on the technology has not stopped its continued use. Last week, with Fukushima still front page news, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended the license of one U.S. plant. And, as with many things nowadays, China is a leader. It is planning extensive nuclear expansion. "Though China, which has 77 reactors at various stages of construction, planning and discussion, has said it will review its programme in the aftermath of Fukushima, few expect it to stop entirely. China has a great appetite for energy, which will continue to grow."
Weighing these observations leads to a number of others that will certainly be in play as the fate of nuclear is considered, both here in the U.S. and abroad, in the aftermath of Fukushima.
First, virtually everyone will reevaluate plant safety because of Fukushima, and this may mean changes for both those already in existence and those planned to come online. The NRC has already said it will be taking a hard look in the U.S., and of course other countries have become even more skittish, as I posted two weeks ago. In any case, these (re)evaluations may well impact how much -- or at least how quickly -- new facilities are added to the grid. The massive stranded costs the companies that built plants in the U.S. in the 1970s and 80s faced after regulation kept changing cannot be far from the front of their collective minds.
Second, we still have not solved the largest stumbling block to using nuclear, whether that use is in its current proportion or an increased one. Long-term storage of high-level nuclear waste is a bugaboo. No state wants the waste. Yucca has dragged on for literally decades. Now it is unfunded. Meanwhile, there are already rumblings about whether the current de facto "solution" -- storing the waste at operating reactors, often in storage ponds -- should continue. None of those facts, or the questions they imply, are easy.
Third, if nuclear is going to be used, Fukushima only highlights the need to make the decision concsiously, openly, and democratically. As David Spence articulately observed yesterday on the envlawprofs email listserv, all energy options force tradeoffs. Fears associated with nuclear are persistent, whether they are accurate representations of its real risks or not. Compare the actual deaths and costs associated with nuclear over the past half-century with those of, say, coal, as Prof. Spence noted, and the factual (rather than perceived) assessment of risks may change. True, nuclear has clear downsides, but it has many advantages as well. As with climate change, if industry is going to continue pursuing nuclear as an option, clear signals are needed.
Right now, the legislative signals on climate change, in the U.S. at least, are muddled if not stalled out. Fukushima may have only the same effect for nuclear.
For an energy source that now provides one-fifth of our electricity, one wonders whether stalemate is the right answer. In a world where nuclear now faces multiple possible futures, that's a question we must ask.