Nuclear energy may not be dead, but it’s on life support

The cascade of negative events at the critically damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan has gotten so bad that the Japanese government has cancelled plans for any future nuclear power plants in that country.

This is particularly noteworthy for three primary reasons:

  • Japan is effectively devoid of fossil fuels, including coal and natural gas, and will need to develop some way to meet an increasing energy demand without nuclear energy or domestically available fossil fuels; 
  • Japan is one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries in the world, and is as capable as any other country in developing and managing a safe and reliable nuclear energy industry; and
  • Japan had previously decided to meet a significant share of its electicity needs from nuclear energy.  Japan generates about 30% of its electricity from 17 nuclear power plants.  (For comparison, about 20% of the total U.S. electricity production comes from 104 nuclear power plants).

If Japan is pulling the plug on expanding its nuclear power production, despite the above reasons to expand it, what chance does nuclear power have for expansion in the U.S. or Europe?  Recent polls have shown a much reduced support for nuclear power by the American public after the nuclear crisis in Japan.

Unfortunately, nuclear energy was one of the key components in the mix of energy sources that was supposed to help reduce the global dependence on fossil fuels.  It’s safe to believe that even if nuclear energy can overcome this latest disaster and regain public support, nuclear energy will be much more expensive and will have much more government regulation and oversight.

Which means the long-term economics will be against nuclear energy.  The cost of nuclear power plants will continue to escalate, while the cost of energy from renewable sources will continue to fall.  Even if the nuclear energy industry can walk the public relations tightrope and overcome the current public resistance to nuclear energy at some point in the future, the cost of electricity generated from renewable sources will have fallen to a level to make nuclear energy totally uneconomical.

Due to the billions of dollars in costs to construct new nuclear power plants, enormous government loan guarantees are required.  With public resistance to nuclear power expansion, and the federal government deficit to finance, do you think there is much chance to get those loan guarantees?  

Last year, well before the Fukushima accident, the federal Energy Information Administration projected that nuclear energy would supply no more than 17% of the total U.S. electricity production by 2035 – down from the roughly 20% today.

Nuclear power plants also require huge amounts of water for cooling both the reactor and the spent fuel rods.  This will add to the difficulties of using nuclear as fresh water becomes increasingly scarce and costly.  If there is a heat wave and water shortage, nuclear energy production could be severely curtailed. 

The crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant emphatically demonstrated that the spent fuel rods – basically the radioactive waste generated by the plant – can be as much of an environmental and public health threat as the nuclear reactor itself.

It’s regrettable and ridiculously wasteful that the federal government has provided tens of billions of dollars in support to the nuclear power industry over the years.  What have we received for that massive investment?  If the government had invested that much money in renewable energy, electricity from renewable energy sources would already be much cheaper than electricity from any other source. 

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reported in 2008 that nuclear energy is around one-third more expensive than energy from coal, natural gas or geothermal – even with the massive government subsidies.  So energy from fossil fuels is cheaper than nuclear in the short-term, and energy from renewables will be cheaper than nuclear in the long-term.  Check-mate, nuclear energy.

Of course, we wouldn’t be concerned about the relative amount of nuclear energy production if we collectively increased our energy efficiency.  Improving our energy efficiency simply means reducing the wasted energy – the energy that is used, and paid for, by us – but doesn’t provide any benefit to us at all. 

Improving our energy efficiency would also reduce our desperate need to endlessly increase our energy production.  And what’s so bad about that?

About the Author

Mark H. Witte is a strong proponent for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and believes individuals should have more control over how the energy for their homes is produced.