In the global quest to reduce carbon emissions, nuclear power should be embraced as one of many ways to replace fossil fuels. The small handful of nuclear disasters in recent decades can all be traced to specific, avoidable mistakes that should be seen as instructive for the future. With renewable energy still relatively expensive and falling short of meeting energy needs on an industrial scale, the careful implementation of nuclear power should be seriously considered.
Nuclear power was once hailed as the energy source of the future, able to provide for the energy needs of a changing post-war society. In the 1950s, nuclear was widely embraced – some said it would make electricity too cheap to meter. By the early 1960s, and the first opinion polls on the subject, less than one quarter of the public opposed the use of nuclear power. Since then, the pubic outlook has changed drastically. The meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, attributed to specific human and mechanical errors, was the beginning of a downward trend in support of nuclear power. The Chernobyl accident in 1986, a result of a flawed reactor design and poorly trained personnel, did not help matters. The public opposition has had lasting effects: the last new nuclear plant in the US began construction in 1977.
As awareness of climate change has risen, nuclear power was reconsidered in many circles. Even Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore promoted nuclear power in the late 2000s, as the best way to prevent catastrophic climate change. Modern nuclear power is indeed one of the clearest paths toward clean energy on an industrial scale. In the past 50 years, nuclear power stations, by offsetting fossil fuel combustion, have avoided 60 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
But this reexamination was relatively short lived. In 2011, Japan was hit with a magnitude 9 earthquake, and the tsunami that followed sent three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into melt-down. Japan, a fully industrialized country with up to date safety requirements saw a disaster of a similar scale to the Chernobyl accident. Understandably, this had a broad effect on public opinion and policy all over the world. Before the accident, nuclear provided 14 percent of the world’s electricity, dropping to 11 percent in 2012 as 15 reactors exited service.
But the Fukushima disaster can be attributed to specific mistakes. The company that ran the plant, Tepco, admitted in 2012 that it knew safety improvements needed to be implemented, but failed to do so before the disaster. They said the improvements, such as the installation of multiple power sources and cooling systems, would have necessitated temporary closure and increased costs. They also said the admission that previous measures were insufficient would have invited lawsuits and would “lend momentum to the anti-nuclear movement.”
“When looking back on the accident, the problem was that preparations were not made in advance,” according to the company’s internal reform taskforce.
The admission came after Japanese investigators criticized years of “collusion” between Tepco and regulators, describing the disaster as “manmade.”
Given that the disaster could have been avoided, the world should take away specific lessons from Tepco’s mistakes, instead of writing off nuclear power in general. This is especially the case given the increasingly challenging goal of meeting the climate targets laid out in the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
There are many reasons to reconsider nuclear power. Nuclear power offers a zero emissions power source. In 2010, it provided 70 percent of carbon free electricity in the US, while wind and solar provided just 6 percent. Besides carbon emissions, nuclear produces none of the air pollution associated with fossil fuels. Nuclear is also one of the most reliable sources of power, with reactors operating 90 percent of the time. Renewable energy sources are still subject to changes in wind and sunlight. Nuclear is cheap, without relying on subsidies or other government support.
While coal mine tragedies, oil spills, and explosions of natural gas pipelines have taken lives, there has never been a death from a nuclear accident at a commercial reactor in the US. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has said working in the nuclear industry is a safer line of work than the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors.
All new technologies run into problems in the early days. And yes, handled improperly, nuclear disasters present problems on a greater scale than other power sources. But if we don’t learn from the past to safely embrace a useful technology than we are missing an opportunity to provide clean, affordable power free carbon emissions, which could help meet the Paris targets that could otherwise already be out of reach. Renewables could be part of the solution, and eventually even most of it. But for now, we need to start reducing emissions immediately without sacrificing our ability to meet the world’s growing energy needs.