Everyone is talking about the virtues and perils of nuclear energy in light of Japan’s unfolding nuclear disaster.
Here are three highs of nuclear power: Clean energy without carbon emissions, new technology that is making reactors safer, and the seismic risks in many places are relatively low. Three lows: nuclear power is still expensive and risky compared with other energy sources, it requires a water source that frequently is on a coastline, and the spent fuel carries its own risks long beyond the life of a power plant.
- Energy without carbon emissions: Unlike other clean energy sources, nuclear provides a constant source of power that can sub in for fossil fuels without emitting greenhouse gases.
- Technology has made new reactors safer: The next generation of nuclear reactors will have passive cooling capabilities, so the cooling systems will use gravity and convection to cool down reactors even if the power goes out.
- The benefits outweigh the risks: Nuclear plants that aren’t on coastlines or along fault lines are much less risky, supporter say. The world can learn from Japan’s misfortune, they argue, but only if people don’t overreact and abandon the energy source altogether.
From Mark Lynas:
“The majority of the world’s nuclear plants are not situated in seismic areas which present a threat along the scale of that faced by earthquake-prone Japan. Those which may be affected by tsunamis are likely even fewer in number. Moreover, the Fukushima plant is 40 years old and was due to be mothballed in February – it was given an extended license, just as has happened in the UK, Germany and many other countries – because no-one could agree on newer, safer designs at the same time as power shortages loomed. … We need nuclear power. If what happens at Fukushima dims the prospects for increasing the world’s use of it, then the battle against climate change will be infinitely more difficult to win.”
- It’s expensive and risky: Japan’s disaster shows just how real the risks are, and several nuclear plants in the U.S. use the same technology today. Opponents argue the risks outweigh the benefits. The U.S. is not prepared to respond to a nuclear disaster, they say, and if one strikes taxpayers will have to pick up a big portion of the tab.
- It requires a water source: Because nuclear power is water intensive, they need to be by a water source. Coastlines can provide that, but they are vulnerable to natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. When they’re placed inland, nuclear plants can strain freshwater resources.
- Spent fuel lives on: The question of what to do with nuclear waste is still largely unanswered. There is no approved long-term storage site in the U.S. for spent fuel, some of which remains radioactive for thousands of years.
From Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis at the Institute for Energy and Environment at Vermont Law School:
“This is yet another example of how a multi-billion dollar investment can turn into a multi-billion dollar liability within minutes. The only way that new reactors will be built in the United States is if the economic risk is put upon the taxpayer through federal loan guarantees and/or upon ratepayers through advanced cost recovery.”