Nuclear Crisis in Japan: A Time for Discussion Not Knee-Jerk Reaction

Authors Note: Although it goes without saying, the earthquake/tsunami catastrophe in Japan is a grave humanitarian crisis that must be dealt with immediately and collectively and I’m thankful to see that the international community is readily helping Japan’s people in every way it can.  My comments below focus on the domestic impacts of one of its crisis – nuclear energy – but in no way is meant to lessen or marginalize the many more (and vast) challenges endangering the citizens of Japan.

A national conversation is beginning to take shape in the United States about the safety and efficacy of producing electricity from nuclear energy.  It’s a conversation that has started off on the wrong foot.  Many thought leaders and policymakers are calling for halting all new plant construction and many commentators are stating that the so called U.S. ‘nuclear renaissance’ is over.  In fact, the conversation is already beginning to move to the extremes without any thorough discussion.  It’s this type of knee-jerk, short sighted reaction to energy policy that has put the United States into the energy bind it’s in now: uncertain energy prices, lack of viable substitutes, fossil fuel driven climate change, and our reliance on unstable foreign oil.  Most importantly, policymakers failing to take the long-view approach to nuclear energy policy threaten to stifle much needed clean tech innovation.

This is not to say that the nuclear crisis in Japan doesn’t require significant attention.  The partial meltdown of at least two reactors impacted by Friday’s historic earthquake and subsequent tsunami require careful study of back-up power systems, coolant type, and redundant fail-safe mechanisms.  Without a doubt, we should question whether currently operating nuclear reactors can withstand such natural disasters (they can) and can effectively shut down if there is a power failure (they can).  Policymakers should also require that new reactor designs are safe in these extreme situations, if it already isn’t.  But any new legislative or regulatory action should not impede the long term development of nuclear energy for three reasons.

First, we need more low-carbon baseload energy options, not less.  Without nuclear energy, our choices for replacing coal power plants are what?  Wind is just becoming cost competitive in certain regions of the country, but without breakthrough battery storage options cannot act as a baseload energy source.  Same goes for solar without the cost competitiveness.  Both technologies require radical innovations that the federal government has only recently invested in through ARPA-E and DOE Innovation Hubs and represent more midterm clean energy solutions.  In the short term, utilities would be left with building more coal or natural gas plants, further locking the United States into high fossil fuel consumption.  Nuclear energy is the only low carbon substitute for retiring coal plants.

Second, nuclear energy is a safe energy option (and advanced nuclear energy is even safer).  According to NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, “All our plants are designed to withstand significant natural phenomena, like earthquakes, tornadoes, and tsunamis.”  In fact, plant safety designs are catered to the environment it is located in.  The Nuclear Energy Institute’s Tony Pietrangelo elaborated, “The West Coast plants are designed to higher standards than the Central and Eastern United States.  [Safety design] is based on a historical look at what has happened in those areas, what soil or rock they sit in. They are very robust. I think, as we have seen in Japan, despite the magnitude of that earthquake, they hold up quite well.”  And it’s not like the fossil fuel alternatives are safe.  Within the last year the U.S. has dealt with a significant coal mine disaster, the Gulf oil spill, and water contamination issues with shale natural gas fracking.  Given that track record, nuclear energy in the United States is a safe option and considering the advanced safety designs of new proposed plants, safety is only increasing as we develop better technology.

Last, we shouldn’t put the brakes on nuclear energy innovation in response to the Japanese crisis; we should be doubling up our support for innovation.  The nuclear industry is already plagued with long term uncertainty due to a lack of a cohesive national clean energy strategy.  A long term moratorium on new plant construction may lead utilities and energy companies to use dirty energy sources to meet their regions energy needs.  This would have negative impacts on the entire nuclear energy innovation system.  For instance, there has been a growing interest in developing next generation small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).  The DOE has proposed funding an SMR program that supports deploying more developed light water SMRs to help create a more robust nuclear market as well as support developing even more advanced high-temperature fast SMRs.  Numerous U.S. start-ups have developed designs as these innovations represent a more versatile, safer, and cheaper alternative to current big-box nuclear technology.  If policymakers shut down current generation nuclear plant construction, any interest in developing even better, safer breakthroughs shuts down as well.  So instead of stifling innovation, policymakers should recognize the benefits of supporting safer advanced nuclear technologies and double down efforts to quickly develop them to market.

In truth, all that’s needed is an honest, well informed policy discussion, not a repeat of decades past.

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About the author

Matthew Stepp is a Senior Analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) specializing in climate change and clean energy policy. His research interests include clean energy technology development, climate science policy development, transportation policy, and the role innovation has in economic growth.