Nuclear as Usual: Why Fukushima Will Change Less Than You Think

Despite the sturm-und-drang and political posturing about the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the event won't do much to change the basic political economy of atomic energy


From virtually the moment that reports first hit the international media that there were problems at the Fukushima nuclear plants, speculation about the impact that the accident would have upon the future of nuclear power overwhelmed accurate information about the actual nature and severity of the accident.

energy_bug_1.pngWhile the full extent of the accident is still unclear and may remain so for many weeks or months, one thing is clear and has been since the very earliest reports of trouble. The public health, economic, and environmental impacts of the Fukushima accident will pale beside those of the natural disaster that caused it. Total fatalities resulting from the earthquake and tsunami will likely exceed 20,000 and has left close to a half million people homeless. The economic loss associated with the disaster has been estimated at up to $300 billion. The tsunami has scattered the civilizational detritus of what was much of northeastern Japan over a landscape of hundreds of square miles.

Even in the worst case, involving the full meltdown of multiple reactors and a significant breach of containment, there are no credible scenarios wherein the Fukushima accident could conceivably have racked up a similar human, economic, or environmental toll. Nonetheless, Fukushima was the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl and anti-nuclear activists were quick to make the comparison. Never mind that the Chernobyl disaster resulted from an explosive fire at an uncontained reactor of a far more dangerous design that exposed vastly more people to vastly more radiation than Fukushima could ever possibly result in.

Policymakers were quick to react. German Chancellor Angela Merkel reversed her prior support for extending the life of Germany's aging nuclear fleet. China halted all proposals for new reactors while assessing the risk of accidents in light of the Japanese crisis. Democratic Congressman Ed Markey, a longstanding nuclear opponent, called for a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear plants while Senator Joe Lieberman, a long-time nuclear proponent called for a reassessment of the U.S. nuclear program. Several days later President Obama reiterated his support for nuclear power while also announcing that his administration would undertake a comprehensive review of nuclear safety in the wake of Fukushima.

Yet lost in the hyperbolic claims of nuclear opponents, the defensive reactions of the nuclear industry, and the carefully calibrated repositioning of politicians and policymakers is the reality that Fukushima is unlikely to much change the basic political economy of nuclear power. Wealthy, developed economies, with relatively flat energy growth and mature energy infrastructure haven't built a lot of nuclear in decades and were unlikely to build much more anytime soon, even before the Fukushima accident. The nuclear renaissance, such as it is, has been occurring in the developing world, where fast growing, modernizing economies need as much new energy generation as possible and where China and India alone have constructed dozens of new plants, with many more on the drawing board.

Absent Fukushima, developed world economies were not going to build much new nuclear power anytime soon. The deliberations in Germany have involved whether to retire old plants or extend their lifetimes, not whether to build new plants. The decade long effort to restart the U.S. nuclear industry may result in the construction of, at most, two new plants over the next decade.

Presented by

Jesse Jenkins, Ted Nordhaus & Michael Shellenberger

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger co-founded the Breakthrough Institute, an energy-focused think tank. Jesse Jenkins is the director of energy and climate policy at Breakthrough.

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