In light of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis, many people are asking about nuclear energy. Because it is a clean-emitting but dangerously toxic energy source, nuclear power strikes to the crux of the important environmental issues we face and exposes the difficult trade-offs that we must consider. I'd like to address those key questions and concerns and to assess what role, if any, nuclear power has in our future.
First, the lack of information coming from Fukushima and poor planning around risk and contingency systems are problematic. Nuclear power is fraught with conflicting interests around risk planning, commercial interests and transparency regarding crisis response. Officials from TEPCO, the company that operates the plant, have their hands full, and many of the monitoring instruments are likely damaged, but this proves that our contingency systems are likely inadequate in light of cascading events from a nuclear crisis. Can our political, regulatory and commercial institutions adequately manage the risks, contingencies and accidents with respect to nuclear power? Are we learning lessons from Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, or are we repeating the same mistakes? Why is TEPCO, a company that didn't plan for such an accident, charged with managing the disaster? Why has the Japanese government only recently and reluctantly stepped in? Clearly, if nuclear power is to factor in the future, a meaningful coalition of government, business and the public needs to conduct the risk assessment and planning measures.
As well, we still don't have unified and responsive reporting on radiation at the site and surrounding area. Information must be credible and available immediately. I understand that the responsible parties want to protect citizens but do not want to foment panic. Still, the lack of credible tracking and reporting is leaving people in Japan and the rest of the world jittery. It appears that radiation monitoring at Fukushima is ham-fisted and unreliable. This is especially concerning considering the proximity of major population centres to the site. Why was radiation monitoring and reporting an unspecified component of a disaster response plan? With third-part reports of plutonium on the site and high radiation levels near the facility we need to be able to decipher this information.
We must also consider the costs of these disasters and the overall costs of nuclear power. It could have been worse. Fukushima was set for decommissioning shortly, but what if the plant was relatively new? A facility like this would cost billions today. What if it were rendered inoperable after only a couple years earning back a fraction of its costs? Ratepayers, and most likely taxpayers, would be on the hook. This is a risk for any type of new generating capacity, but the costs of a nuclear plant are so large that stranded capital is a significant potential cost. Also, because the potential costs of a nuclear accident are so high, only governments will insure against the costs. That means that taxpayers are effectively insuring the nuclear industry against disasters like this.
The toughest nut of nuclear power has always been in the cleanup. We still don't have a safe, cheap and reliable method to deal with the radioactive waste. Nuclear waste has always been a problem and one of the most problematic issues at the Fukushima site is the spent fuel pools evaporating and exposing the area to radiation. This is the great lapse in the nuclear industry with no palatable solutions. Some proponents say that breeding reactors will be able to recycle the spent rods into useful energy thus greatly reducing the amount of waste. But to reprocess these rods will take hundreds of years, and we will still be left with waste (albeit much less) at the end. Waste will invariably remain onsite at the reactor facility as shipping it is too risky. This goes back to the planning point: Should reactors only be built where the waste can be buried "safely" onsite?
With all that said, the technological advances and proposed concepts and designs for new reactors show some promise. Furthermore, backing away from nuclear, which would likely be replaced with fossil fuel energy, will almost certainly mean more greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the short-term. But with all the significant hurdles around planning, paying for and decommissioning nuclear power plants, does it really make sense for it to be a broadly applicable technology to displace fossil fuels? Nuclear power is a technology of angels, meaning that no mistakes are allowed. If the solution to climate change were strictly nuclear then we would need to build thousands of plants in many different countries with varying levels of experience managing nuclear power. In light of the questions above, it may well be that our ability to design, operate and clean up after these plants is not adequate and could never be adequate to avoid further crises.