Japan’s Quake and Political Fallout

Notes on nuclear renaissance

The ongoing struggle to bring four reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station under control has understandably shaken the recent bipartisan push for nuclear energy in the U.S. In the Senate, Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman suggested the country “put the brakes” on building more nuclear reactors until we can assess the outcome of whatever happens in Japan. In the House, Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, who sits on the committee that oversees nuclear power, is calling for increased safety measures around America’s 104 nuclear plants, saying that “the tragic events now unfolding in Japan could very easily occur in the United States.” And the Los Angeles Times—whose readership includes those living near two nuclear reactors drawing much attention this week, Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo and San Onofre in San Diego County—has put itself in the fray, arguing that in light of Japan, the costs of nuclear power outweigh its benefits.

These are just the early mumblings of a debate likely to intensify as Japan’s nuclear situation develops and concludes, for better or for worse. Just as drilling fell into the political riflescope following the BP oil spill—and nuclear became untouchable in the wake of Three Mile Island—Fukushima has put the pressure back on the cyclically popular energy source. The media has applied the pressure, too. But it is vital that journalists remember to rigorously bolster their reports with context. Nuclear is a sensitive and inherently frightening topic; nuance and basic facts are extremely important.

So far, many of the reports on safety have observed that very credo. Most have noted the careful safety measures that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission takes—ensuring geologic seismic studies are done in areas in which reactors are to be built so that they may be built to withstand the strongest earthquake to have occurred there, for example—to counterbalance the more invested views of groups like the very quotable Union for Concerned Scientists. But that kind of balance and nuance has been less prominent in the political discussion of what becomes of America’s so-called “nuclear renaissance”—and that very term is one of the problems.

The state of the nuclear energy industry in America

Considering where we are in terms of nuclear energy, the basics that many reports have dutifully noted are: there are 104 nuclear reactors in the U.S., across thirty-one states, which are operated by thirty different power companies. Those reactors produce 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and account for more than 30 percent of the worldwide nuclear generation of electricity, making the U.S. the world’s largest producer. That’s a big deal. But ground has been broken on few new reactors since the seventies both because of prohibitive costs—private investors are reluctant to get involved in projects because of the risk that projects won’t go through to completion—and because of jitteriness in the wake of Three Mile Island.

The term “nuclear renaissance” has been used to characterize the current state of the industry in a number of stories this week concerning U.S. policy in the wake of Japan despite this lack of construction. The suggestion of a renaissance, though, stems from the idea that loan guarantees for nuclear in the Clean Energy Act, combined with a new preference for “greener” nuclear options over greenhouse-damaging coal energy, have put a number of new nuclear reactor projects in the pipeline. Thus, the “renaissance” of this sixties/seventies favorite technology. The press is now asking if events in Japan might have changed the course of that rebirth. But they’re not necessarily questioning the nature of the rebirth itself.

The AP published a story Monday headlined in the Times as “Japan’s Blasts Cast Doubt on Nuclear Renaissance,” Mother Jones asks, “Will Japan Disaster Halt a US Nuclear Renaissance?”, the Los Angeles Times says “Japan’s crisis may have already derailed ‘nuclear renaissance.’” The reports have generally been fair and measured—MoJo’s piece is particularly strong—exploring the potential impact of Japan on the nuclear debate rather than mongering fear about what Japan means for nuclear safety at home. But “nuclear renaissance” itself is somewhat troubling as a descriptor, as America is in something more like a pre-renaissance than the real, full-blown thing.

According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)—the country’s nuclear energy overseers you have no doubt seen frequently quoted this week—there were sixty-five nuclear reactors under construction worldwide as of late February this year. Twenty-seven of those reactors were being built in China, eleven in Russia, five each in India and South Korea, and a smattering of smaller numbers in other countries in Asia, Europe, and South America. Only one nuclear plant was under construction in the United States—the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar Unit 2 site—and it isn’t a new project. According to the World Nuclear Association’s website (the organization promotes nuclear development globally), the development of a second generator on the site—Watts Bar Unit 1 has been operating since 1996—was suspended in 1985 and resumed in 2007 under a still-valid permit. In addition to that one project under construction, the NRC listed sixteen pending applications for new nuclear sites this February, from Texas eastward, and only four of these at a site that had not previously produced nuclear power.

Globally, “nuclear renaissance” might be an appropriate term for what’s going on in some countries—and in Europe a number have already called for a pause on that renaissance—but it’s difficult to say, looking at these statistics, that the U.S. is quite there. The Obama administration’s aggressive push to expand loan guarantees for nuclear reactors under the 2005 Clean Energy Act not withstanding, so far, Japan stands not in the way of a nuclear rebirth in America, but a gestation period in which nuclear has been put back on the table after years of living in the cold. But the tractors are not revving up just yet. It’s important to keep the actual state of the nuclear industry in mind, rather than the planned state, when examining the impact that Fukushima will have on it.

All debates should start with the facts. And as reactors burn and leak in Japan, these facts could make for more temperate discussion.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,