By Paolo von Schirach
March 11, 2012
WASHINGTON – Until last year it appeared that America was on the verge of a nuclear energy renaissance. Given the bad publicity for all carbon based energy, coal in particular, and given the yet to be proven cost effectiveness of renewables such as solar and wind, nuclear had gotten a second look –and it appeared favorable. Of course it helped that more than 30 years had elapsed since the 1979 Three Mile accident that caused a national scare. Even if there were no casualties or other appreciable adverse effects due to radiation release in the Three Mile Island area, it took thirty years to absorb that accident and to start thinking again about nuclear without heart palpitations.
After Three Mile Island, Chernobyl
Of course, after Three Mile Island we had the much more devastating 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, with real consequences in terms of lives lost and damaged health for lots of people exposed to radiation. But in that case it could be argued that the Chernobyl reactor was based on an old Soviet era design and that, after all, you could expect bad oversight and poor nuclear safety within a decomposing Soviet Union.
With disasters forgotten, new plans for nuclear
And so, with the big radiation scare behind us, and banking on new designs for better and safer reactors, the US utilities rediscovered interest for this form of electric power generation. Besides, the fact that nuclear has zero emissions had broadened its political constituency. Nuclear had gained new favor even among environmentalists deeply concerned about greenhouse gases released by carbon based fuels. They started appreciating that a nuclear power plant has zero emissions.
Fukushima and the emotional reactions
But then the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami came along in Japan and with that the Fukushima Daiichi disaster that showed the vulnerability of nuclear power plants. And Fukushina happened in a modern, industrialized country with a vast nuclear power sector, supposedly overseen through quite sophisticated safety procedures. The fact that such a disaster could take place in a country similar to the US made an impression. Because of that accident, notwithstanding the rather unique circumstance of a a major earthquake and a tsunami, the re-emerging US nuclear industry was dealt another powerful body blow.
Indeed, whatever the technical and scientific analysis about what happened at Fukushima, let’s keep in mind that a nuclear accident provokes strong emotional reactions. Fear of contamination from radiation is based in part on science and in part on totally irrational reactions. In the case of Fukushima, despite the horrible natural disaster, despite the antiquated design, the poor planning and the confusion in the aftermath of that epic tsunami, to date it is not clear what damage if any the exposure to small amount of radiation may have caused to the many people in the area.
Argument not rational, but powerful nonetheless
But it does not matter. Any talk of a nuclear accident evokes images of Hiroshima, disaster, mutations and cancer caused by radiation. There is no point in saying that any new reactor that will be built in the US would be based on much more modern designs that would make it next to impossible to have the overheating caused by lack of electrical power, as in the case of Fukushima.
The experts can talk rationally abouts risks. But for most people this is an emotional issue. Now nuclear is perceived as inherently dangerous, no matter how you present it. And it is all about the ineffable fear of the invisible power of radiation.
Dream that failed
And so, on the first anniversary of Fukushima, the cover story of The Economist, a publication not known for playing on emotions, is “Nuclear energy, the dream that failed“, (March 10 – 16, 2012). The argument against nuclear is quite simple. Try as we may, we cannot make a case that to date nuclear power is 100% safe. On top of that it is very, very expensive. While a nuclear reactor is cost effective in the long run, it costs a large amount of money and it takes years to build it. And this creates huge financing obstacles that restrict its marketability. Finally, in the US now we are right in the middle of a natural gas revolution. With record low natural gas prices, it is harder to make an economic case for investing billions over many years to build a new nuclear reactor when it is much cheaper to have a gas fired plant.
Hard to make a case for nuclear
So, if you take it all together, today it has gotten really tough to make a good case for electricity generated by nuclear power. We have very high costs which complicate financing, long lead time between planning, permitting and construction, and now strong competition from relatively clean natural gas.
But now the real deciding factor is widespread fear of another Fukushima. As unlikely as such an event may be, considering new reactors based on totally different and much safer designs, the “radiation fear” is there and it will be the strongest political obstacle against nuclear power. Even the most compelling arguments will not convince people motivated by intense anti nuclear emotions.