Within a few days of a tsunami striking Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors on March 11, a fierce debate had been fueled about the implications for energy policies around the world. Although the primary focus of most observers has rightly been on the immediate health risks in Japan and on stabilizing the reactors, some media commentators and political figures are already using the incident to argue that nuclear power is unacceptably risky. Some governments have made pronouncements that encourage the antinuclear lobby. Conversely, some observers are offering blanket assurances, saying that the industry’s commendable safety record over the last 30 years should be enough, in itself, to counter the public’s misgivings. Unfortunately, we will hear many such oversimplified, rhetorically heated arguments in the weeks and months to come.
As of April 2011, any debate about the implications of this crisis for the energy industry is premature. It will take into the summer to gather enough facts about the incident to draw reasonable conclusions about the safety and operating practices at this facility — and several more months to establish how those findings should apply to other nuclear plants and other countries. We cannot ignore the risk that a politicized overreaction would lead to hasty bans on nuclear power, and then to further energy shortages, just when the demand for electricity is growing rapidly around the world. The stakes are too high right now to base either political or business decisions on any rush to judgment.
But the events at Fukushima Daiichi do give us an opportunity for more thoughtful discussion on the role of nuclear power in general. This discussion should take into account the technical aspects of reactor design and operation, and the broader implications of energy supply and demand. It should acknowledge the extent to which nuclear energy has provided power that is free of greenhouse gases, while fully recognizing the concerns that people around the world have raised about this energy source.
Most of all, we need to look dispassionately at the trade-offs among the various options available for energy policy, and their impact on safety, cost, and the environment. A hasty, large-scale movement away from nuclear power at this juncture, even if it were practical and possible, would not resolve most of the issues. We can ask two questions as a good starting point for the needed discussion. First, how critical is nuclear energy as a long-term power source for countries around the world? Second, how should the energy industry and policymakers adapt in the aftermath of events at Fukushima Daiichi?
Accepting the Source as Essential
Any sober analysis of the global energy situation would have to conclude that nuclear power is an essential fuel source for many geographies. In a growing global economy, new advances in other forms of energy generation are not sufficient to keep pace with demand, especially if there is a consensus that coal generation should be reduced. Put simply, we cannot afford to turn away from any single option at this point (other than the most aging and inefficient coal plants), and nuclear power must be part of the balance.
In many countries, a long-term shift away from coal to lower-emission fossil fuels and some renewables is in progress; this shift has already brought environment-related protests over natural gas drilling, changes in land use, and higher power prices. To turn away from nuclear energy now would require more use of all other fuels. New technologies such as renewables are viscerally and emotionally appealing; they will surely play an increasing role in power generation around the globe. But, at least for now, they can only contribute to meeting demand; they cannot supplant current sources. Even if solar and wind energy sources became far more prevalent and economically attractive, the sun and wind are intermittent and cannot ensure “always on” power. Widespread use of renewables will require dramatic technological developments in energy storage and production, which are not currently available or even foreseeable in the near term.