In the years following the major accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, nuclear power fell out of favor, and some countries applied the brakes to their nuclear programs. In the last decade, however, it began experiencing something of a renaissance. Concerns about climate change and air pollution, as well as growing demand for electricity, led many governments to reconsider their aversion to nuclear power, which emits little carbon dioxide and had built up an impressive safety and reliability record. Some countries reversed their phaseouts of nuclear power, some extended the lifetimes of existing reactors, and many developed plans for new ones. Today, roughly 60 nuclear plants are under construction worldwide, which will add about 60,000 megawatts of generating capacity — equivalent to a sixth of the world’s current nuclear power capacity.
But the movement lost momentum in March, when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the massive tsunami it triggered devastated Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. Three reactors were severely damaged, suffering at least partial fuel meltdowns and releasing radiation at a level only a few times less than Chernobyl. The event caused widespread public doubt about the safety of nuclear power to resurface. Germany announced an accelerated shutdown of its nuclear reactors, with broad public support, and Japan made a similar declaration, perhaps with less conviction. Their decisions were made easier thanks to the fact that electricity demand has flagged during the worldwide economic slowdown and the fact that global regulation to limit climate change seems less imminent now than it did a decade ago. In the United States, an already slow approach to new nuclear plants slowed even further in the face of an unanticipated abundance of natural gas.
It would be a mistake, however, to let Fukushima cause governments to abandon nuclear power and its benefits. Electricity generation emits more carbon dioxide in the United States than transportation or industry, and nuclear power is the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the country. Nuclear power generation is also relatively cheap, costing less than two cents per kilowatt-hour for operations, maintenance, and fuel. Even after the Fukushima disaster, China, which accounts for about 40 percent of current nuclear power plant construction, and India, Russia, and South Korea, which together account for another 40 percent, show no signs of backing away from their pushes for nuclear power.
Nuclear power’s track record of providing clean and reliable electricity compares favorably with other energy sources. Low natural gas prices, mostly the result of newly accessible shale gas, have brightened the prospects that efficient gas-burning power plants could cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants relatively quickly by displacing old, inefficient coal plants, but the historical volatility of natural gas prices has made utility companies wary of putting all their eggs in that basket. Besides, in the long run, burning natural gas would still release too much carbon dioxide. Wind and solar power are becoming increasingly widespread, but their intermittent and variable supply make them poorly suited for large-scale use in the absence of an affordable way to store electricity. Hydropower, meanwhile, has very limited prospects for expansion in the United States because of environmental concerns and the small number of potential sites.
Still, nuclear power faces a number of challenges in terms of safety, construction costs, waste management, and weapons proliferation. After Fukushima, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent federal agency that licenses nuclear reactors, reviewed the industry’s regulatory requirements, operating procedures, emergency response plans, safety design requirements, and spent-fuel management. The NRC will almost certainly implement a number of the resulting recommendations, and the cost of doing business with nuclear energy in the United States will inevitably go up. Those plants that are approaching the end of their initial 40-year license period, and that lack certain modern safety features, will face additional scrutiny in having their licenses extended.
At the same time, new reactors under construction in Finland and France have gone billions of dollars over budget, casting doubt on the affordability of nuclear power plants. Public concern about radioactive waste is also hindering nuclear power, and no country yet has a functioning system for disposing of it. In fact, the U.S. government is paying billions of dollars in damages to utility companies for failing to meet its obligations to remove spent fuel from reactor sites. Some observers are also concerned that the spread of civilian nuclear energy infrastructure could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons — a problem exemplified by Iran’s Uranium-enrichment program.
If the benefits of nuclear power are to be realized in the United States, each of these hurdles must be overcome. When it comes to safety, the design requirements for nuclear reactors must be re-examined in light of up-to-date analyses of plausible accidents. As for cost, the government and the private sector need to advance new designs that lower the financial risk of constructing nuclear power plants. The country must also replace its broken nuclear waste management system with a more adaptive one that safely disposes of waste and stores it for centuries. Only then can the public’s trust be earned.