The unfolding disaster in Japan has put a big damper on what has been called the nuclear renaissance. With fears of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island receding, countries like the U.K., India and China (which has 40 percent of all currently producing nuke plants), steamed ahead. So did the U.S.
Now, the debate begins anew, particularly in Germany, which has just shut down all its pre-1980 nuclear plants. The terrible struggle to control the Fukushima reactors has captured the public’s attention like no Greenpeace demonstration ever could.
But the renaissance was in trouble even beforehand. Besides the continuing safety concerns, issues of cost and the need for government support have put the brakes on nuclear power. Under Presidents Bush and Obama, the U.S. has come on strongly for nuclear. Obama’s new budget “calls for $36 billion in loan guarantees for further nuclear power plant construction.”
But that is never going to fly.
There are too many lessons yet to be learned about Fukushima; and the costs of nuclear construction, which will need to implement new, tighter safety standards, are going to be generally prohibitive. NPR reported:
Three days before the quake struck Japan, John Rowe, the chairman of Exelon Corp., which is the nation’s largest operator of nuclear power plants, had said he would not be investing in any more because they cannot compete with natural gas at current prices.
The EU is considering stress tests for its reactors, and countries like South Africa are beginning to face up to the consequences of over-reliance on nukes. All are discovering that there is no such thing as a non-polluting fuel. Every one has associated costs and risks, as the auto industry has learned in building hybrids and EVs.
What should happen in the U.S.—but probably won’t, given our present economic and political stagnation—is a serious assessment of the energy situation: costs, risks, political and social consequences, safety. And tradeoffs.
Such issues as radioactive waste, which had recently moved somewhat to the background, have re-emerged. The New York Times reports that the pools for cooling spent-fuel rods from the Japanese reactors
which sit on the top level of the reactor buildings and keep spent fuel submerged in water, have lost their cooling systems and the Japanese have been unable to take emergency steps because of the multiplying crises.
We worry about burying waste in a Nevada mountain while reactors are operating with cooling pools on their rooftops. We pat ourselves on the back that traffic deaths are the lowest since 1950, while 33,808 people lost their lives in 2009. Injuries numbered 2.2 million!
The ultimate tradeoff with nuclear is getting (relatively) clean power but paying for it in fear (of a disaster). Nukes may not continue growing everywhere, but in most countries like the U.S., we will make our pact with the devil, as we have with traffic deaths, so that life as we have designed it can go on. The final costs may be beyond counting.
Is possible to reduce the risks and still reap the benefits of nuclear technology?