The Magazine

A Fossil Fuel Renaissance?

The policy fallout from Japan’s nuclear woes.

Mar 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 27 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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The prize for the most egregious treatment belongs to Germany’s Die Welt newspaper, which said that Japan’s nuclear catastrophe will have the same political and psychological consequences as 9/11. Japan lost probably more than 10,000 people to the immediate quake and tsunami, and thousands more face much more acute risks than radiation in the coming weeks from cold weather, shortages of water, and failing sanitation systems. But these risks make for boring news copy. Instead we are treated to breathless media reports, recycled from the glory days of Three Mile Island, the nuclear accident that caused zero health impacts on local residents, according to follow-up studies, and Chernobyl, whose health effects turned out to be less than one-tenth as large as the initial estimates. At the time of Chernobyl in 1986, most accounts suggested the accident would lead to at least 50,000 deaths (since the Soviets, unlike the Japanese, failed to evacuate the nearby population in a timely way); subsequent studies have placed the number closer to 4,000. By contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 21,000 Americans contract lung cancer every year from radon exposure in their homes, and another 50,000 Americans succumb to premature deaths from air pollution from fossil fuel energy. Both are probably overestimates, but even if they overestimate the toll from radon and air pollution by a factor of ten, it is clear that nuclear power poses lower health risks than other energy sources. 

There is no question that this is nuclear energy’s worst moment. Will we have the maturity to learn from this catastrophe and move forward, as we did after Apollo 1 and the two space shuttle disasters and the early failures of commercial jet aircraft design like the British Comet of the 1950s? Over the last decade opinion polls have shown steadily rising public support for nuclear power in the United States following two decades of strong public opposition. The aftermath of the Japanese nuclear crisis will reveal how robust this shift is. 

An additional irony of Japan’s disaster is that had we not abandoned nuclear power 30 years ago, we might have begun deploying new-generation nuclear designs, such as small modular thorium reactors or light pressurized water reactors that either can’t melt down or have passive redundancy features that do not depend on human action to shut down in the event of earthquakes or other disasters. Instead, we have extended the use of the large old light-water reactors, like the Fukushima Daiichi, long after their intended life span.

In 1980, science writer Ron Bailey points out, the U.S. government thought we might have as many as 1,000 nuclear reactors up and running in the United States by now, instead of the 104 aging plants we do have. Our nuclearphobia led us to build hundreds of coal- and gas-fired power plants instead. 

Unlike the administration reaction to the Gulf oil spill last year, President Obama and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu have reiterated their support for nuclear power even in the face of the unfolding disaster in Japan, an encouraging sign. Obama and Chu could go one step better, though, and give a major address when the Japan crisis is over, calmly laying out all the facts and making the case to carry on.

Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the Almanac of Environmental Trends.

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