Not long after a tsunami washed over Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plants in March 2011, causing a partial meltdown, it appeared to many that humankind's half-century experiment with nuclear power might be in permanent jeopardy. Although nuclear energy provides 15 percent of the world's electricity, all without spewing greenhouse gas emissions, many countries seemed ready to forgo nuclear for deadlier but less viscerally frightening power sources. And sadly, while U.S. political leaders, including those at the just-concluded Democratic National Convention, are quick to trumpet their embrace of natural-gas drilling, the word "nuclear" is scarcely ever mentioned.
A year and half after the accident, it's clear that the political fallout from Fukushima has been less than many anticipated. Despite the predictable denunciations from anti-nuclear campaigners and high-profile shifts away from nuclear both in Germany-- which is now planning to phase-out nuclear power entirely by 2022 -- and Japan -- where the government is seriously considering making the country's post-Fukushima shutdown permanent -- the nuclear landscape today looks much as it did before the accident. In places where rapidly growing energy demand has outstripped the availability of domestic fossil fuel reserves, nuclear remains the only reliable alternative to generate sufficient electrical power. China and India are proceeding apace with plans to expand their nuclear generation capacity dramatically. South Korea recently announced plans to increase significantly the percentage of electricity it gets from nuclear energy.
Yes, in a number of developed economies with lower rates of growth and abundant reserves of fossil energy, reawakened nuclear fears have raised the bar for new nuclear projects. But these economies weren't building many new nuclear plants before Fukushima anyway. Germany's on-again, off-again relationship with nuclear has dragged on for decades, and in the wake of Fukushima, off is back in. But tellingly, despite top German officials' promises that "the nuclear power chapter has come to an end for us," Germany only shut down its oldest and smallest reactors, with a full phase-out not expected until 2017. Japan has shut down its fleet, at great economic cost, but already has restarted one reactor in Ohi. Now some in Japan are suggesting restarting more of them in the interest of reducing the nation's almost total dependence on imported coal, oil, and gas, which has turned Japan's long history of large trade surpluses into an enormous and unprecedented trade deficit in little over a year.
Arguably, the biggest impact of Fukushima on the nuclear debate, ironically, has been to force a growing number of pro-nuclear environmentalists out of the closet, including us. The reaction to the accident by anti-nuclear campaigners and many Western publics put a fine point on the gross misperception of risk that informs so much anti-nuclear fear. Nuclear remains the only proven technology capable of reliably generating zero-carbon energy at a scale that can have any impact on global warming. Climate change -- and, for that matter, the enormous present-day health risks associated with burning coal, oil, and gas -- simply dwarf any legitimate risk associated with the operation of nuclear power plants. About 100,000 people die every year due to exposure to air pollutants from the burning of coal. By contrast, about 4,000 people have died from nuclear energy -- ever -- almost entirely due to Chernobyl.
But rather than simply lecturing our fellow environmentalists about their misplaced priorities, and how profoundly inadequate present-day renewables are as substitutes for fossil energy, we would do better to take seriously the real obstacles standing in the way of a serious nuclear renaissance. Many of these obstacles have nothing to do with the fear-mongering of the anti-nuclear movement or, for that matter, the regulatory hurdles imposed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and similar agencies around the world.
As long as nuclear technology is characterized by enormous upfront capital costs, it is likely to remain just a hedge against overdependence on lower-cost coal and gas, not the wholesale replacement it needs to be to make a serious dent in climate change. Developing countries need large plants capable of bringing large amounts of new power to their fast-growing economies. But they also need power to be cheap. So long as coal remains the cheapest source of electricity in the developing world, it is likely to remain king.
The most worrying threat to the future of nuclear isn't the political fallout from Fukushima -- it's economic reality. Even as new nuclear plants are built in the developing world, old plants are being retired in the developed world. For example, Germany's plan to phase-out nuclear simply relies on allowing existing plants to be shut down when they reach the ends of their lifetime. Given the size and cost of new conventional plants today, those plants are unlikely to be replaced with new ones. As such, the combined political and economic constraints associated with current nuclear energy technologies mean that nuclear energy's share of global energy generation is unlikely to grow in the coming decades, as global energy demand is likely to increase faster than new plants can be deployed.
To move the needle on nuclear energy to the point that it might actually be capable of displacing fossil fuels, we'll need new nuclear technologies that are cheaper and smaller. Today, there are a range of nascent, smaller nuclear power plant designs, some of them modifications of the current light-water reactor technologies used on submarines, and others, like thorium fuel and fast breeder reactors, which are based on entirely different nuclear fission technologies. Smaller, modular reactors can be built much faster and cheaper than traditional large-scale nuclear power plants. Next-generation nuclear reactors are designed to be incapable of melting down, produce drastically less radioactive waste, make it very difficult or impossible to produce weapons grade material, useless water, and require less maintenance.
Most of these designs still face substantial technical hurdles before they will be ready for commercial demonstration. That means a great deal of research and innovation will be necessary to make these next generation plants viable and capable of displacing coal and gas. The United States could be a leader on developing these technologies, but unfortunately U.S. nuclear policy remains mostly stuck in the past. Rather than creating new solutions, efforts to restart the U.S. nuclear industry have mostly focused on encouraging utilities to build the next generation of large, light-water reactors with loan guarantees and various other subsidies and regulatory fixes. With a few exceptions, this is largely true elsewhere around the world as well.
Nuclear has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress for more than 60 years, but the enthusiasm is running out. The Obama administration deserves credit for authorizing funding for two small modular reactors, which will be built at the Savannah River site in South Carolina. But a much more sweeping reform of U.S. nuclear energy policy is required. At present, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission haslittle institutional knowledge of anything other than light-water reactors and virtually no capability to review or regulate alternative designs. This affects nuclear innovation in other countries as well, since the NRC remains, despite its many critics, the global gold standard for thorough regulation of nuclear energy. Most other countries follow the NRC's lead when it comes to establishing new technical and operational standards for the design, construction, and operation of nuclear plants.
What's needed now is a new national commitment to the development, testing, demonstration, and early stage commercialization of a broad range of new nuclear technologies -- from much smaller light-water reactors to next generation ones -- in search of a few designs that can be mass produced and deployed at a significantly lower cost than current designs. This will require both greater public support for nuclear innovation and an entirely different regulatory framework to review and approve new commercial designs.
In the meantime, developing countries will continue to build traditional, large nuclear power plants. But time is of the essence. With the lion's share of future carbon emissions coming from those emerging economic powerhouses, the need to develop smaller and cheaper designs that can scale faster is all the more important.
A true nuclear renaissance can't happen overnight. And it won't happen so long as large and expensive light-water reactors remain our only option. But in the end, there is no credible path to mitigating climate change without a massive global expansion of nuclear energy. If you care about climate change, nothing is more important than developing the nuclear technologies we will need to get that job done.
Originally published in Foreign Policy.
Photo credit: Stuck in Customs.