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How Japan Should Impact the US Nuclear Debate

My thoughts and prayers have been and will continue to be with the people of Japan. Their suffering is both a tragedy and testimony to the fragility of even the most developed infrastructure.

It is also a reminder of the sometimes alarming ubiquity of our energy supply system. Almost a year after the Deepwater oil spill began in the Gulf of Mexico, the people of Japan and around the world are watching as another potential oversized disaster unfolds due to a crack in the global energy pipeline. The Daiichi reactor in Fukushima, Japan suffered structural damage as a result of the 8.9 point earthquake on Friday, and three explosions caused by excessive sea water flooding have only made the situation worse. Perhaps because of our energy infrastructure’s ubiquity, disasters like these are bound to happen, but nuclear accidents are the ones that seem to rattle public confidence most profoundly. It is important to understand such disasters in the proper context in order to learn from mistakes and not unduly handicap any options in the critical quest for cleaner energy.

Fortunately, speaking in disaster orders of magnitude, the still unresolved emergency at the Daiichi facilities will most likely resemble a Three Mile Island as opposed to a Chernobyl. Engineers on the ground appear confident, and James F. Stubbins of the University of Illinois says “the likelihood there will be a huge fire like at Chernobyl or a major environmental release like at Chernobyl, I think that’s basically impossible.”

The question that many in the US are asking now, however, is what this accident will mean for US energy policy going forward. As John Broder reported over the weekend in NYT:

Until this weekend, President Obama, mainstream environmental groups and large numbers of Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed that nuclear power offered a steady energy source and part of the solution to climate change, even as they disagreed on virtually every other aspect of energy policy. Mr. Obama is seeking tens of billions of dollars in government insurance for new nuclear construction, and the nuclear industry in the United States, all but paralyzed for decades after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, was poised for a comeback.

Nuclear power’s comeback may have hit a speed bump, or at least picked up a few skeptical passengers. Nevertheless, as Broder points out, the Administration is following through on its commitment to nuclear in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, and regulators at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission claim that America’s nuclear power plants will be safe in natural disasters. That very well may be the case, but the safety of our existing fleet of 104 reactors hasn’t precipitated the construction of a single new plant since 1979, when the victimless accident at Three Mile Island put the American nuclear industry in stasis.

With public health and safety concerns certainly piqued by events in Japan, political and financial obstacles to a nuclear renaissance may have sharpened as well. As I opined recently, nuclear power may actually be one of the most popular forms of energy considered by Congress in recent years, and certainly the most popular form capable of generating baseload power. The effects of the Japanese disaster on American politics are yet to be seen, but don’t expect them to be zero.

Additionally, the private sector has long bemoaned the extreme regulatory hurdles and capital costs associated with breaking new ground on a nuclear site, and any legislation seeking to erect new power plants was likely to both standardize structural facility design and streamline the permitting process. But whereas a week ago the prospect of a cheaper, quicker process for installing new nuclear power seemed welcome, now it may seem to many like rushing into things. Even if Congress follows through on its fairly widespread support for nuclear power, the myriad of concerns raised vividly by the Daiichi accident may weigh heavily on the minds of our legislators.

The dangers exposed by this debate extend even farther when we consider the big picture. Say we somehow agree to some threshold of n disasters divided by total nuclear capacity as an acceptable future. Even if n ≤ 0, we would still have to weigh that calculation against the arguably much more dangerous carbon infrastructure that nuclear power would replace. As Americans for Energy Leadership has written, the environmental, health/safety, and geopolitical consequences of the carbon economy are vast. And though the casualty count for coal and oil accidents is much higher than for nuclear, again, the nuclear catastrophes really seem to stick in our collective psyche.

Basis: per million MWe operating for one year, not including plant construction, based on historic data which is unlikely to represent current safety levels in any of the industries concerned. | Sources: Ball, Roberts & Simpson, 1994; Hirschberg et al, Paul Scherrer Institut 1996, in: IAEA 1997; Paul Scherrer Institut, 2001.

Basis: per million MWe operating for one year, not including plant construction, based on historic data which is unlikely to represent current safety levels in any of the industries concerned. | Sources: Ball, Roberts & Simpson, 1994; Hirschberg et al, Paul Scherrer Institut 1996, in: IAEA 1997; Paul Scherrer Institut, 2001.

However, any form of decarbonization of our energy economy in the near future is unlikely without substantial help from the “nuclear wedge”, says Broder:

“’It’s not possible to achieve a climate solution based on existing technology without a significant reliance on nuclear power,’ said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington and an energy and climate change adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign.”

The danger in this case, then, is what will happen if we don’t expand our nuclear capacity.

We should not be alarmists. The maintenance of, and revolution in, our energy infrastructure will not occur by comparing death tolls. But in the aftermath of events like the disaster at Fukushima, it is difficult not to suffer a little sobriety at the prospect of moving in any direction on energy. We are frightened by the possibility of a meltdown, just as we face the daunting task of decarbonization. However, to be rather mechanistic, the direct casualties resulting from any nuclear contamination or explosion should not be tallied independently from other injuries resulting from this natural disaster. We need to be careful not to blame nuclear technology for damage done by a tsunami, just as we would not blame an architect if an unusually strong earthquake destroyed a house (as this one did many).

This is neither an “accidents happen” moment, nor a time to point fingers. And we do not dishonor a tragedy or exercise hubris by compelling forward reasons for optimism in the arena of nuclear energy debate. As AEL’s Dan O’Connor recently pointed out, nuclear power carries with it the benefits of base load power generation and capacity factors exceeding 90%, the highest in the business. The impressive contribution of nuclear power has shrunk the carbon intensity (in this case, carbon intensity = kgCO₂/MWh) in economies like France, Sweden and, yes, Japan (see Table 1 – credit to CARMA).

Table 1. CO2 emissions from electricity generation
Country Electricity generated(a) CO2emissions (b) Energy mix (c) Carbon intensity(d)
  TWeh million tons fossil hydro nuclear kg CO2/MWeh
Poland 163 163 96% 1% 0% 1002
South Africa 215 198 93% 0% 6% 920
Australia 228 203 90% 7% 0% 891
China 3260 2830 83% 15% 2% 868
India 719 579 76% 16% 2% 805
Czech Republic 78 58 65% 3% 30% 742
Indonesia 125 83 78% 9% 0% 662
Malaysia 95 59 86% 6% 0% 626
Germany 636 389 62% 3% 24% 612
United States 4190 2558 69% 7% 18% 611
Turkey 149 91 72% 27% 0% 609
Taiwan (China) 218 124 59% 4% 17% 570
Thailand 124 70 92% 5% 0% 563
United Kingdom 370 206 71% 1% 20% 557
Netherlands 101 55 78% 0% 4% 548
Spain 283 138 58% 7% 19% 487
Russia 896 434 63% 20% 16% 484
South Korea 392 174 44% 1% 35% 444
Italy 355 152 70% 9% 0% 429
Mexico 220 93 73% 13% 5% 421
Ukraine 172 67 44% 7% 48% 387
Saudi Arabia 167 64 99% 0% 0% 385
Egypt 101 38 87% 12% 0% 376
Japan 1030 376 33% 8% 28% 365
Iran 205 74 86% 10% 0% 363
Belgium 83 26 36% 0% 55% 317
Argentina 95 29 61% 30% 7% 307
Finland (e) 98 29 8% 4% 7% 295
Pakistan 87 23 53% 35% 3% 261
Canada 732 156 26% 50% 12% 213
Venezuela 101 11 24% 74% 0% 110
France 551 48 9% 9% 78% 88
Brazil 431 22 7% 83% 2% 50
Sweden 154 3 2% 47% 45% 17
Norway 139 1 1% 98% 0% 5
World Total 18830 10377 551
The data are taken from the CARMA database.
The data are for the year 2007.
The table shows the 35 countries with the highest electricity production in 2007.
These 35 countries accounted for 90.1% of world electrical energy generation, and 92.7% of world CO2 emissions from electricity generation in 2007.
The table is sorted in order of decreasing carbon intensity.
The largest value in each column is highlighted.
The emissions data are for electricity generation alone.
The energy mix data are for electricity generation alone, not for total energy use.
The data show emissions during operation, not for the whole life cycle of the generating plant.
(a) The units of electrical energy generated are terawatt-hours.
(b) The units of carbon dioxide emissions are millions of metric tons.
(c) The fossil fuel fraction in the energy mix combines gas, oil, coal and lignite use.
(d) The units of carbon intensity are kilograms of CO2 emitted per megawatt-hour of electricity generated.
(e) The data for Finland differ from Finnish industry data. The discrepancy is marked in the table.

The benefits of nuclear power are surely non-negligible, perhaps even wholly impressive, and certainly so for those whose goal is to get us off coal and oil. We should not seek to admonish caution, but the questions raised by accidents do not void the answers given by successes. Therefore, as we undergo a transformation in our energy infrastructure, we must simultaneously take precautions for safety while vigorously exploring new opportunities for decarbonization.
Three mile island photo by Merlin1075.
Alex Trembath's picture

Thank Alex for the Post!

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David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Mar 17, 2011 5:41 pm GMT

I was surprised to see any deaths in the column for nuclear, then I realized you are discussing the world nuclear industry.  All those deaths came from the one incident at Chernobyl which is made clear on the IAEA site.  None have happened in the US, the largest user of nuclear power in the world, where designs differ in the most fundamental way from the one employed in Chernobyl.  I wonder at your use of the word catastrophes as if there were more than one.  

What with MSNBC calmly reporting as their coverage of Fukushima got into high gear that “some say” 1 million people died or will die as a result of Chernobyl, obviously there is a widespread disbelief that information such as what is in your chart of comparitive accident tolls could possibly be accurate.  

I wonder how many others would describe TMI as THE cause of the “stasis” you mention.  It certainly would be pointed to by everyone.  Compared to programs of the time in other countries there was an inordinate amount of bungling by the US industry contributing to some tremendous cost overruns here, pre TMI.  It seems to me the failure of the industry to take over from fossil in the electricity sector ultimately has to be seen in the context of fossil fuel availiability and low price, given that the great external cost of using fossil fuels, CO2, is blithely ignored in the economics. Throw in TMI and no wonder the industry lost its nerve.  Had people realized CO2 could not be allowed to continue to accumulate during the time of TMI it would have been a different debate.  The nuclear industry in the US still isn’t generally seeing the imperative CO2 presents, surprisingly to me.  

Civilization risks facing devoting all its activities to removing CO2 from the atmosphere, which any analysis if you viewed that as a tax would say people wouldn’t pay it, which means a decline to the end.  

The sudden discovery of new US gas and the unanticipated success of climate science denial was stalling the “nuclear renaissance” before Fukushima.  By the time you see a prospective nuke builder walking away from a loan guarantee program you have to conclude there wasn’t enough unity in the Democratic Party to actually get things moving.  Imagine how things must look now to executives who recently cancelled their nuclear plans. 

Your discussion is excellent.  


Alex Trembath's picture
Alex Trembath on Mar 17, 2011 5:57 pm GMT


Thanks very much for your comment. As always, uncertainty plays a crucial role in the evolution of our energy planning/infrastructure. There is public uncertainty that climate change is a reality; there is uncertainty among climatologists as to the severity of greenhouse-driven climate effects; and there is uncertainty which policies might make what impact in mitigating emissions. A similar uncertainty exists in the nuclear debate, with some estimates (and conventional wisdom) ranking Chernobyl as much more deadly than I (and others) believe it was. There is political-social uncertainty in the history of nukes in the US, with questions about the causes of the “stasis” I mention. The engineering/technical questions are difficult enough without bringing politics/social considerations into the mix, but we have no choice. 

With this uncertainty in public opinion having fueled skepticism over nukes for decades, even non-democracies like China are pulling back (for the time being) on their nuclear plans. This is why risk assessment is so vital to our planning, and why aiming for a zero-risk future is folly. We cannot, in my view, discount nuclear power as a plausible policy option in view of the far more numerous risks of the carbon economy. 

Thanks again for the thoughtful comment David. There’s more excellent coverage compiled at Americans for Energy Leadership:


David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Mar 17, 2011 8:15 pm GMT

I’d hesitate before concluding what anyone is going to do based on what they say.  In the heat of the moment it costs China nothing and changes nothing if they say whatever they feel it might be politic to say.  After the dust settles everyone will be taking a fresh look at their plans, obviously.  

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