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.
While 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.
By contrast, even a much more serious accident would have been unlikely to delay the construction of new nuclear plants in the developing world for long. For major emerging economies like China and India, energy is still too scarce and expensive for much of their populations and economies and they will likely continue to build new nuclear plants as fast as they can in the coming decades.
In the end, what it all looks like is business as usual, for nukes specifically and the global energy economy more generally. Despite the claims of proponents, present day renewables remain too expensive and undependable for any economy in the world to rely upon at significant scale. So Germany, despite its vaunted solar feed in tariffs, will rely more heavily upon coal, which it has in abundance, as it retires its aging nuclear fleet. The US, already in the midst of a natural gas boom, will use more gas. And China and India, desperate for every kilowatt of power they can produce, will develop every available energy resource they have as fast as they can, including nuclear.
In the short term, we may see a modest uptick in carbon emissions in some developed economies. A recent Breakthrough Institute analysis concluded that Germany would see a four percent increase in its annual carbon emissions if it phased out its nuclear fleet. The US would see a one percent increase if it phased out its Mark 1 reactors and replaced them with gas and a five percent increase if it replaced all of its reactors.
Those increases are not insignificant but in the context of a global economy whose emissions are rising at three percent annually they constitute little more than noise. Perhaps what is most notable in the wake of the Fukushima accident is the shift of opinion among many leading greens. While the usual suspects from long time anti-nuclear activists like Amory Lovins and Helen Caldicott to deep green institutions such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have responded with predictably hyperbolic denunciations of nuclear power, influential green George Monbiot pronounced his support for nuclear power and The Atlantic's Josh Green reported on the consensus in Obama's Washington to support atomic energy. Even leading green groups like NRDC and EDF have mostly kept their powder dry in the days since the accident.
Acceptance of, and even vocal support for, nuclear power under such circumstances would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. But as many leading greens have come to terms with the potentially catastrophic risks of climate change, they have begun to reconsider the far more modest risks associated with nuclear power. There is no credible path to global emissions stabilization absent enormous quantities of new nuclear power. It is, quite simply, the only low carbon energy technology available today capable of producing large quantities of low carbon baseload power on the scale that the rapidly growing global economy demands. Unfortunately, to meet that demand, nuclear as usual will not suffice. What we will need in order to actually displace the world's enormous and rapidly growing fossil fueled infrastructure is nuclear power that is faster, safer and cheaper. While the Fukushima accident hasn't improved the prospects for that in the short term, the generational shift in attitudes toward nuclear power that the reaction to the accident has revealed may provide a much more hospitable climate for nuclear innovation in the long term.