Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nuclear Power Crisis in Japan Should Not Be an Excuse to Derail Nuclear Energy

The catastrophic earthquake and resultant tsunami that wrecked havoc on Japan killed thousands of people, injured thousands more, and inflicted terrible damage on the country's transportation and energy infrastructure. It also critically damaged Japanese nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, causing a series of explosions and bringing the reactor core perilously close to a complete nuclear meltdown.

While this incident is not as serious as the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl-style, it has quickly and unsurprisingly reignited the debate about nuclear power safety in the United States. Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CN) has responded to the Japanese crisis by calling for a moratorium on nuclear power plant construction in the United States. Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), the Ranking Member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has called for congressional hearings on nuclear power safety in light of the unfolding disaster in Japan.

President Obama, to his credit, has refused to engage in any knee-jerk reaction to the Japanese nuclear crisis. Indeed, the Obama administration has declared that the accident in Japan will not deter the United States from moving forward with an expansion of nuclear power. Republican members of Congress has also released a number of statements reaffirming their commitment to nuclear energy. As my colleague Jodi Ismert mentioned a few days ago, it would be a mistake to let this accident derail our own critically-needed nuclear energy project.

None of this is to say nuclear power is not without its problems. The unfolding disaster in Japan makes this starkly clear, as do memories of the catastrophe of Chernobyl in 1986 and the near-disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979. In addition to the risk of accidents, we have the thus far unresolved problem of how to deal with the radioactive waste produced by nuclear fission power, and the possibility that the reactors could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons. The last point, needless to say, resonates among the Japanese more strongly than it does any other nation.

But when viewed rationally, the negatives of nuclear fission power are outweighed by one overwhelming positive: nuclear power does not release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. With the threat of global climate change growing ever more serious, we are going to need large amounts of power produced by methods that do not release greenhouse gases. While we should obviously be investing heavily in wind, solar, tidal, and other forms of renewable energy, renewables by themselves cannot provide sufficient energy for our needs under even the most optimistic scenarios. Like it or not, a large chunk of our energy for the next several decades is going to have to come from nuclear fission reactors.

Anti-nuclear activists can do all the rhetorical contortions they can think up, but they cannot avoid the fact that, for the next few decades at least, our energy policy will essentially come down to choosing between an expansion of nuclear power or an expansion of fossil fuel power (mostly coal-fired power plants). Every kilowatt of power produced by nuclear energy is one less kilowatt that will have to be produced by coal or natural gas, and hence one step forward to solving the problem of climate change.

We can hope that, by the middle of the century, the arrival of commercial nuclear fusion power will have changed the entire nature of the world energy matrix, providing safe, effectively inexhaustible and carbon-free energy for the entire planet. Until that day comes, we should pursue a steady draw down in fossil power power plants, ramping up nuclear fission power and renewable energy to take up the slack and produce additional energy.

Above all, we must resist the temptation to indulge in emotional, knee-jerk reactions, and we cannot allow events like those unfolding in Japan to distract us from a sensible and sustainable energy policy.

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