Weighing the Consequences of Nuclear Power

The industry grinds to a halt as public opinion debates the value of nuclear

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The ever-evolving situation unfolding at Japan's malfunctioning reactors at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station has inevitably shifted public opinion toward anxiety over nuclear power. Despite nuclear energy lobbyists attempts to assuage some concerns, nearly 400 projects worldwide may be put on hold as the world observes the consequences from the unfolding disaster. Germany, in addition, is temporarily shutting down several old plants. As opinions develop about the future of nuclear power plants in America and abroad, we collected a snapshot of the more valuable concerns about the present state of the industry:

The Tide May Be Turning Against Nuclear Power

  • 'If Japanese Can't Build a Completely Safe Reactor, Who Can?' wonders Slate columnist Anne Applebaum, noting that the country's nuclear catastrophe post-WWII has given it an incentive to build efficient and safe nuclear power plants. The problem, she says, is that there are are extremely large, obvious drawbacks in the event of a statistically improbable major disaster. "The true costs of nuclear power are never reflected even in the very large price of plant construction," Applebaum writes. "Inevitably, the enormous costs of nuclear waste disposal fall to taxpayers, not the nuclear industry. The costs of cleanup, even in the wake of a relatively small accident, are eventually borne by the government. The costs of health care will also be paid by society at large, one way or another. If there is true nuclear catastrophe in Japan, the entire world will pay the price."
  • This May Be a 'Game Changer' Catalyzing the Green Movement Against Nuclear writes Time magazine's nuclear energy correspondent Eben Harrell, detailing the environmental movement's "strange" relationship with the energy industry. "In many countries, opposition to nuclear reactors in the wake of Chernobyl gave rise to major Green political parties," Harrell writes. "Many environmentalists still oppose nuclear power--Greenpeace, for example, still calls for the phase out of all reactors. But as climate change has taken over the Green agenda, other environmentalists have come to favor nuclear  as part of a low-carbon energy mix. It was this confluence of factors--fading memories of Chernobyl and increased concern about greenhouse gases--that gave the nuclear industry such confidence just a few years ago. That confidence will have been deeply shaken by events in Japan."
  • 'Stick a Fork' in Nuclear Future for America, figures op-ed contributor Paul Whitefield in The Los Angeles Times. "Nuclear power plants have one fatal flaw: To be totally safe, nothing must go wrong---ever," he writes. Even though Whitefield appears to be personally supporting the nuclear industry, he doesn't think that Americans will buy it after Japan. "Nuclear power may not be the future. Personally, I prefer solar, wind and other such sources," he explains. "But the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico didn't stop us from drilling for oil. And the disaster in Japan shouldn't stop us from a reasonable discussion of nuclear power."
  • The Fate of 400 Power Plants Depends On the Next Few Days writes Nick Butler at The Financial Times, noting all the projects that may be put on hold worldwide due to the crisis in Japan. "If the situation at Fukushima deteriorates with a significant release of radioactive material, international confidence in the sector will be destroyed," he concludes. "Few if any new stations will be commissioned and in both Europe and America the future of existing stations will be uncertain. A technology that promised to provide a significant source of carbon-free power will have lost public trust."

It's Still a Valuable and Efficient Option

  • A Strong Case for Nuclear Energy--and Trust  "All forms of energy generation carry risks," argues Carnegie Endowment Nuclear Policy Program associate James M. Acton in Foreign Policy. That said, the "nuclear industry will have to resist a strong temptation to argue that the accident in Japan was simply an extraordinarily improbable confluence of events and that everything is just fine. Instead, it must recognize and correct the deficiencies of its current approach to safety." Once it does so, then the industry can work to fix the problems on display at Fukushima to build better and safer plants. "For nuclear energy to expand, the public must trust the nuclear industry. It must trust reactor operators to run their reactors safely," he concludes. "It must trust regulators to ensure there is adequate oversight. And, most importantly perhaps, it must trust reactor designers to create new reactors that do not share the vulnerabilities of older ones."
  • The U.S. Needs To Continue Building Plants writes Michael Tomasky simply at The Guardian. "The Obama administration is correct to say that the US needs to continue to pursue building more nuclear power plants," he concludes, reasoning that "even if we did do something rational around solar and wind and other alternatives, given energy needs we'd still need to expand either fossil fuels or nuclear, and nuclear doesn't contribute to global warming."
  • We're Setting Unrealistic Standards for Nuclear Reactors, writes syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times. "Who said anything, anywhere is invulnerable to disaster? At magnitude 9.0, this was Japan's biggest earthquake and could be the fourth largest ever recorded." The public, therefore, just needs to "cope" with the problems. He writes: "Many in the industry fear that the unscientific hysteria over the Japanese reactor will deal a mortal blow to nuclear power. You would at least think that climate-change activists, who want fossil-free energy (and to bolster the reputation of scientists), would be throwing coolant on the public's overreaction."
  • America and Britain Need Nuclear Power  The Chicago Tribune and UK's The Telegraph have both published editorials noting the precarious circumstances in Japan, but nevertheless asserting a pro-nuclear stance. "Let's step back. At the end of this scary episode, all of us still want the same thing: to be able to turn on the lights, juice an iPad or recharge a Chevy Volt," write the Tribune editors. "Britain faces energy shortages in the medium term and is vulnerable to a sudden disruption of oil and gas supplies from the Middle East," write The Telegraph editors. "It is imperative that not even a calamity in Japan should divert the Government from this path [of replacing old nuclear reactors and building new ones]."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.