That leaves traditional fossil fuels, such as coal, gas, and oil. These all involve short- and long-term trade-offs among environmental concerns, costs, resource availability, and supply security. Certainly, there are many uncertainties that stymie clear decision making; for example, it is not clear whether available oil and natural gas resources will be sufficient to meet the world’s growing demand for transportation or electricity. In addition, in the developed world, a significant amount of coal generation is slated to be retired during the next 10 years, because of aging facilities and relative inefficiency, which further exacerbates future supply gaps.
Moving rapidly away from nuclear power would lead directly to higher power prices, unless a dramatic increase in coal (typically a cheaper option) is accepted. The most extreme price increases would result from forced early retirements of nuclear facilities, because utilities would have to replace lower-priced nuclear power with higher-priced power from other sources.
Given these factors, many nations — especially those where nuclear power is already prevalent — will continue to see nuclear power as a necessary component of their long-term energy portfolio. Though nuclear energy currently makes up only 15 percent of electricity generation worldwide, it constitutes 20 to 30 percent of the energy supply in the U.S., Japan, and Germany, and 75 percent in France. If these countries, and others that rely partially on nuclear power, decide that it should not be part of their long-term energy mix, they will need to engage in challenging and broad new efforts in pursuit of other forms of energy generation. Japan (with some units forced offline since the March 11 earthquake) and Germany (which has already opted to take its pre-1980 reactors offline temporarily to perform safety checks) will be interesting test cases to observe.
It is also important to watch rapidly growing countries such as China and India, which have relatively few good alternatives to meet their expanding energy needs. China, in particular, had planned to build 110 new reactors during the next few years. Those plans have been scaled back for now; only the 27 units already under construction will continue, pending completion of new safety reviews in the wake of the Fukushima incident. Backing off on nuclear energy in any meaningful way would force China to rely more on energy imports and legacy coal production, and its high rate of GDP growth might be constrained.
In short, in every conceivable future, nuclear power is a necessary long-term power source, if only because so many nations count it as part of their short-term portfolio now.
Adaptation and Evolution
How, then, should the energy industry and policymakers adapt after Fukushima Daiichi? First, the public will certainly place a high burden of proof on the industry to demonstrate that nuclear reactors will stand up to human-induced catastrophes or unavoidable forces of nature more effectively — even extraordinary “black swan” events like the tsunami that struck Japan. This must, however, be considered in the context of the existing industry. Continuous safety improvement is already entrenched in its culture. For example, as a response to the events in Japan, the U.S. nuclear industry has begun a self-imposed review of all existing American reactors, without waiting for regulators to mandate one. This includes inspections of equipment and verification of plants’ capability to handle a prolonged loss of power during and after seismic and flooding events, and reassessment of storage protocols for spent fuel to help plants avoid the unexpected dangers that stymied Japanese authorities. In that context, one lesson to draw from the events in Japan is the capability of the industry (and its regulators) to mitigate and recover from adverse events, even in those rare cases when catastrophe is not prevented.