Ever since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, there seems to be a global trend towards phasing out nuclear energy. A lot of countries seem to have decided that the risks associated with nuclear energy are too high for them to bear.
It is always a good idea to learn from past experiences and incorporate them into current decision making, but are the events that occurred in Fukushima really generalizable?
The Fukushima disaster was caused by a major earthquake followed by a tsunami, the combination of these two factors overwhelmed the human operators and the fail-safe measures built into the nuclear reactors.
I would have thought that the take-away lesson of this incident is that it is not a good idea to build nuclear reactors on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire. How this can be generalized to affect countries in seismically inactive countries like, for example, Germany is beyond me. Unless Germany expects to experience an Earthquake of a similar magnitude followed by a tsunami, the events in Fukushima shouldn’t affect its decisions on nuclear power.
It looks as if those who dislike nuclear power have used this event as an excuse to deliver a coup de grâce to the nuclear power industry. This is a pity for several reasons, first, nuclear power is perhaps the only economically feasible alternative to fossil-fuel power generation at the moment. Second, the nuclear industry is one of the few industries that can have a significant impact on the scientific and industrial base in any country.
Don’t get me wrong, there are major drawbacks to nuclear power as well, foremost among which are the risk of nuclear proliferation, the issue of waste disposal and the significantly higher costs for building new power plants.
However, all of these issues can be dealt with. For example, countries that have been using nuclear energy for a long time have clearly solved or minimized the risks associated with proliferation. The issue of waste disposal is still an unresolved issue and will stay with us for some time, but there are existing plans for waste disposal and containment that make sense for the time being. And, finally, the cost of building new nuclear plants is generally offset by the lower price of nuclear fuel compared to most fossil fuels and the fact that the energy produced per amount of fuel used is very high for nuclear power.
Let’s summarize the benefits of nuclear power
- The power generated per amount of fuel consumed is the highest available
- Costs are competitive with coal, the cheapest fossil-fuel used to generate power
- Uranium, the fuel used in nuclear power, is abundant
- Plutonium, a by product of generating power from Uranium, can be used to generate more power
- Nuclear energy is a zero-carbon power source
- Nuclear energy promotes significant improvements in the scientific and industrial base in a country
Given all these benefits, the decision to abandon or reduce reliance on nuclear power should be made wisely. If the decision was based on the difficultly of dealing with long-term waste disposal and containment, I could perfectly understand it, but to base a decision on events that occurred in Fukushima without considering whether or not these event may be replicated locally is completely illogical.
The discovery of new reserves of gas and shale oil may have made the economics of nuclear power less competitive, but this is based on the lack of a proper carbon cost. Pricing carbon emissions and getting industries to pay this price would make nuclear energy, and most other forms of alternative energy, more economically competitive. Setting a carbon tax may level the field a bit.
In short, nuclear power is a competitive alternative, zero-carbon, source of power that has many benefits, we should think wisely about the position of nuclear power in our power generation diet, but we should not throw the baby away with the bath water. The Fukushima disaster was a tragic event, but it would be even more tragic if we took away the wrong lessons from it.