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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 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. 

A Fossil Fuel Renaissance?

Anti-nuclear protesters in Manila

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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. 

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