The catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is being regarded as the atomic power equivalent of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which set back offshore oil drilling just as it appeared on the brink of a substantial expansion. This means we’ve now come full circle, as critics of offshore drilling compared the Gulf oil spill to Chernobyl. At the very least the events in Japan are going to reinforce the reluctance of Wall Street to invest in new nuclear power in the United States, deter insurance companies from covering nuclear plants, and increase resistance on Capitol Hill to extending the loan guarantees the nuclear industry says are essential to kick-starting more nuclear installations.
The big winner in the short and intermediate term will be fossil fuels—especially coal and natural gas—which will be used to fill the breach in Japan and elsewhere to generate electricity. Which means that the biggest loser is ironically the environmental community, which had been slowly abandoning its longtime opposition to nuclear power because it offered an important component in reducing greenhouse emissions linked to climate change. Although many environmentalists are enjoying an “I-told-you-so” moment, the new cloud over nuclear power means that global carbon dioxide emissions will go up faster. Germany, for example, is shutting down several of its nuclear reactors for several months as a precaution, even though they are not vulnerable to tsunamis. One early estimate is that German carbon dioxide emissions will rise by as much as 4 percent this year because of the nuke shutdown. Japanese CO2 emissions will surely rise by more than this as the country replaces its lost nuclear capacity with coal, gas, and even oil in a few old oil-fired power plants it will be forced to bring online. The Kyoto Protocol emissions targets for 2012, already doubtful, can be tossed on a nuclear waste pile.
But unlikely as it may seem at the moment, the final irony is that if we keep our heads, the aftermath of this disaster may give us a clear view of how a new generation of nuclear power might be possible. As of press time it is still difficult to know exactly what is happening at the reactors, as contradictory and tentative information pours forth on an hourly basis. It will be weeks or months before we have an accurate understanding of what has occurred. The Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the private-sector Nuclear Energy Institute were reluctant to comment all week because of the fast-moving situation.
Two aspects seem certain as of now. First, the reactors themselves appear to have survived intact an earthquake 40 times the size they were designed to withstand. It was the failure of the backup diesel generators necessary to keep the cooling systems operating, swamped by the 33-foot tsunami, that touched off the crisis and subsequent explosions. But for this arguable lack of foresight, the reactors might have come through unscathed. Plainly the first task for operators of ocean-side reactors, such as California’s San Onofre and Diablo Canyon plants, is to ensure their backup power systems are not similarly vulnerable, even though the tsunami risk to these plants is much lower than the Japanese plants. Second, the necessary decision to flood the reactors with corrosive seawater means the reactors will be a total loss, costing Japan billions in cleanup costs and lost power capacity. A third aspect is likely to become evident over time: The radiation risks—even in the worst-case scenario of a total breach of the containment structures—will turn out to be more modest than the media hype would have you believe.
This is not to make light of a very serious situation at the reactors or the health risks to the courageous workers on the site who may be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation when new explosions and breaches occur. But the media coverage of the whole episode is a textbook example of the inability to gauge risks, weigh trade-offs, and put a story in its proper perspective. Instead the media have done what they do best: generate panic.
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.