Japan’s hair-raising encounter with the failure of the Fukushima Number One nuclear power plant after last year’s tsunami continues to have negative repercussions for nuclear power as an alternative to carbon-based fuels.
In Japan’s case, the reaction may ultimately provide evidence of the extent to which alternative power generation is a practical option.
The Japanese cabinet recently agreed to slowly phase out nuclear power over the next three decades. Japan thus joins a number of European governments in retreating from reliance on nuclear power to generate electricity.
Safety concerns raised by the Fukushima plant’s failure, combined with the high cost of new nuclear power plants, have persuaded a number of national governments to drop or downgrade the role of nuclear energy in their future. While hopes remain high for gains in renewable wind and solar sources for electrical power, reducing reliance on nuclear power inevitably raises demand for coal and other carbon-based fuels.
In Japan, the retreat means finding a replacement for a third of its electrical power production — no simple challenge.
Germany, which relied on nuclear energy for more than 20 percent of its electrical power, shut down eight nuclear power plants last year and plans to close the rest within a decade. It is increasing the use of coal. Switzerland is following Germany’s lead. Even France, the nation most reliant on nuclear energy and most comfortable with its costs and risks, is pulling back. President Francois Hollande recently said the government will reduce the nation’s nuclear energy dependency from 78 percent to 50 percent.
The United States, which gets 21 percent of its energy from nuclear power, so far does not face a similar retreat. The Energy Department’s latest projections for 2035 show a small increase in nuclear power output and a small decrease, to 18 percent, in nuclear’s share of electric power production.
But these projections do not take into account licensing and economic hurdles for new nuclear power plants. Applications for new nuclear power plants disappeared for more than 20 years following the scare from the emergency shutdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979. That initially occurred because of increased public concern about risks and continued because it was cheaper to build power plants fueled by natural gas.
A similar set of problems now faces the U.S. nuclear power industry. As the chairman of General Electric, Jeffrey Immelt told the Financial Times recently, “It’s just hard to justify nuclear, really hard. Gas is so cheap and at some point, really, economics rule.” GE is the leading manufacturer of nuclear power plants.
In the long run, improvements in reactor design could greatly reduce the risks encountered at the aging Fukushima plant.
But that long run now looks farther away.
And that could be a a big setback for efforts to move the world toward using cleaner forms of energy that don’t further elevate the vast volume of greenhouse gas emissions.
Clearly, nuclear power has hazards of its own — as the Fukushima disaster demonstrated. It revealed the shortcomings of supposedly failsafe precautions and offered clear evidence that coastal nuclear plants should be relocated out of the potential path of tidal waves. In retrospect, that was painfully obvious.
The move away from nuclear power in Japan and Europe is an experiment that deserves this nation’s scrutiny. Expectations for alternative sources of energy such as solar and wind power so far have fallen short of the mark. Absent proven options, nuclear power should continue to be an integral part of a national energy strategy for diversified power generation.