Summary: The world’s response to the Fukushima disaster puts the future of a low-carbon energy future in doubt, but nuclear power remains on the table despite safety and cost concerns.
The nuclear industry’s potentially bright future dimmed considerably on March 11, 2011, when a natural disaster disabled the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan and highlighted nuclear power’s role as the world’s most polarizing energy source.
The initial shock of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake knocked out all offsite electric power sources to the Fukushima plant, forcing it to run on emergency diesel generators. Forty-one minutes later, a tsunami struck the crippled plant, overwhelming emergency generators and destroying the water intake pipe used to cool the reactor. The loss of coolant resulted in serious damage to four reactor cores, explosions, and a massive release of radioactive material.
The Fukushima disaster received the highest possible rating of seven on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. Japanese officials estimated it may be more than 20 years before residents can safely return to the area. Studies confirm substantial releases of long-lived radioactive materials such as cesium-137, a known carcinogen, into the atmosphere and Pacific Ocean. The long-term ecological and social impacts remain unclear.
Political responses to Fukushima are changing the future of nuclear power globally. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, once a proponent of nuclear power, announced a phase-out of that nation’s 17 nuclear plants by 2022. No other nation has gone so far. President Obama requested safety reviews for existing nuclear facilities but made clear that nuclear power remains in play. Most European Union countries are also focusing on safety reviews and researching new technology. Chinese officials promise rigorous safety standards but still intend to add 40 gigawatts of nuclear power by 2020, enough to power 40 Vermonts.
Fukushima demonstrates that “stable shut-down mode” is impossible if a plant loses grid power for more than a few hours. Without power, the circulation of cooling water at high pressure through distribution pipes is impossible. It doesn’t take an earthquake to knock out grid power. More common outages can have the same catastrophic effects, including billions of dollars in damage to the site itself, let alone radiation damage far beyond
Still, nuclear power plants are designed to provide continuously reliable electricity and generate no direct greenhouse gas emissions. The only other sources that can provide constant, or base-load, power are hydropower, natural gas, and coal. Renewables like solar and wind are a must in a carbon-constrained future but for now are intermittent sources that require backup power. Therefore, a low-carbon, base-load source is an essential element in any future clean energy portfolio.
Energy analysts project that Germany’s nuclear phase-out will add up to 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually because utilities will be forced to rely on fossil fuel sources during the transition to renewables. If other countries remove nuclear power from the picture, the multiplier effect makes addressing climate change even more difficult. Nuclear power provides nearly 70 percent of electricity in France, 30 percent in Japan (pre-tsunami) and about 20 percent in Germany and the United States, where it is the largest source of low-carbon electricity. A rapid nuclear phase-out will have major energy security and grid reliability repercussions, including likely increased dependence on foreign fossil fuels. Japan is scrambling to increase liquid natural gas imports to meet demand, and Russia stands to benefit immensely as the primary source of natural gas to Europe.
Neither the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010 nor the Fukushima disaster a year later have led to a serious reconsideration of regulatory risks and national energy priorities in the United States. Still, flatly rejecting nuclear power leaves the world less able to cope with climate change. Instead, we need an effective policy that balances nuclear power’s environmental and health costs against the costs of climate change.
According to the International Energy Agency, without further action to reduce carbon emissions in the next five years, the world will be locked into irreversible climate change. We must start aggressively improving efficiency and deploying clean energy now. The debate will continue on how “clean” and cost-effective nuclear power is. New nuclear power plants could provide short-term reductions in carbon emissions by displacing coal plants and provide the back-up necessary for an increase in renewable energy. But investment in new nuclear plants is shortsighted without immediate and substantial investment in less visible and urgently needed measures to improve end-user efficiency, regardless of energy source.
Love it or hate it, it’s too soon to take nuclear power off the table. But weigh all the costs, thoroughly promote energy efficiency, and put the necessary regulatory safety structures in place before embracing nuclear power as the silver bullet against climate change.