What next for nuclear power?

Abandoned reactors

Abandoned reactor construction in Chernobyl after their devastating nuclear disaster. Photo: Timm Suess via Flickr.

‘Too cheap to meter,” they said it would be, back when nuclear energy was young. Half a century later that promise looks as viable as holidays on the moon. Yet nuclear power has been re-positioning itself lately.

Okay, it turns out it’s never going to be free – but it is far less carbon-intensive than fossil fuels. But not entirely.

Even though the nuclear industry and its lobbyists want us to think it’s completely carbon-neutral, like all forms of power, the nuclear industry relies on huge fossil fuel usage across all stages of production. So don’t buy the whole “entirely carbon-free” line.

Even so, in recent years, nuclear power has quite successfully insinuated itself into the climate change debate. Even environmentalists have found themselves reluctantly endorsing it. And sometimes enthusiastically endorsing it. Dangerous and uneconomical it may be, but a nuclear future has got to be better than runaway climate change, right?

So goes the thinking.

Privatize the profits, socialize the losses

Here in Britain, politicians and businesspersons began to pave the way for a new generation of nuclear power plants.  The government even sweetened the deal for investors by promising to underwrite the costs of decommissioning our old plants. More controversially, the state promised emergency aid in the event of an accident. Essentially that makes free insurance at the taxpayers’ expense. In plain talk that means privatizing the profits and socializing the losses. That’s a pretty raw deal when you still have to pay the monthly bill.

That was the last government. But the new one has carried over the dream. Energy analyst Catherine Mitchell describes the latest round of energy regulations as shamelessly pro-nuclear.

Nuclear power works great for politicians. It prolongs the denial of our current economic paradigm by delaying the inevitable moment when a consumer society finally faces the reality that it must use less energy. Less of anything is a politically difficult message, so nuclear gets the government off the hook. Yes, there can be growth, there can be bigger TVs and more gadgets for all of us, and it can all be low carbon too. Party on!

Japan and the new nuclear reality

Of course, the current incident in Japan throws a very large wrench in the works.

All of the sudden everyone’s talking about Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. These were the incidents that took the futuristic gloss off the idea of nuclear power in the first place. But we’d long forgotten or repressed those memories. The tide was turning back in favor of the nuclear lobby.

Now, while the world anxiously watches Japan’s attempts to contain it’s post-tsunami nuclear disaster, Germany has ordered an urgent review of its nuclear plans. Switzerland has suspended the approvals process for new power stations.

With markets re-opening, investors have been bailing out of mining companies. Uranium holdings took a battering.

The poor nuclear power lobbyists must have been weeping into their lattes this morning.

What next?

That’s not to say nuclear power is history.

China is pressing ahead with a typically ambitious nuclear roll-out, and it’s a vital part of the country’s broad energy plans, including lower carbon options.

The Bush administration brokered a nuclear deal with India that neither side will be in any hurry to give up.

And let’s remember that the current crisis in Japan was triggered by a tsunami, not an industrial accident. The response so far, especially on the markets, may be a temporary over-reaction—an opportunity to make a quick profit out of the uncertainty. Then they’ll say just don’t build on a fault line, or too near the coast. Problem solved!

Unless the Japanese reactors genuinely go into meltdown and support for nuclear power becomes politically impossible, it’s likely that the nuclear industry will weather the storm. It’s a shame that the debate is back on the agenda under such traumatic circumstances, but this may be an important opportunity to re-visit the potential and drawbacks of nuclear power.

Under scrutiny, it doesn’t look like a particularly thought-through solution. At current rates of use we only have around 59 years of uranium left. Nuclear fusion would solve that problem, but that’s still in the realms of science fiction.

And then of course there’s the waste issue. Russia is piling theirs up in the Ural mountains. The US was going to bury it under Yucca Mountain, but canned that idea under NIMBY political pressures. No current plan B has emerged. In the UK we’re still wondering what to do with ours, too.

Despite the rising cost of energy, nuclear power still needs government subsidies to make it pay. For that reason alone the American Tea Party Patriot movement is a likely anti-nuclear ally.

And since it takes decades to build the power stations, it’s highly unlikely that a switch to nuclear power could happen soon enough to make a serious dent in carbon emissions or take up the slack from declining supplies of oil and coal.

Nuclear energy looked set for a big comeback. World events have pressed the pause button.

Now all eyes are on Japan.

— Jeremy Williams

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  1. says

    Only one thing about the urgent review of nuclear power here in Germany: Chancellor Merkel, a Physics Ph.D., argued that “according to all scientific standards” an accident like Fukushima was considered an “impossible event”. This is obviously a lie – because given her expertise it is very unlikely that she is ignorant of the massive amount of research that was undertaken worldwide about nuclear risk assessment during the last 5 decades. The risk is well known. Was well known. And it was a deliberate decision to accept that risk for certain ends, especially economic growth. The risk to potentially kill and severely injure huge numbers of human beings and animals and destroy and harm nature simply has been accepted. And the proponents of nuclear energy in this globalized world share a global responsibility. Oceanic currents, wind and the food chain do not stop at national borders and also cannot be dammed or ordered to stay in place. Nature has always been globalized.

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