Future of Nuclear in Disarray

The fluidity of the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima Daiichi in Japan has congealed.  Complex and confusing information have become grim reality with deadly serious consequences.

In a statement Wednesday of this week, Greg Jackzo, Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), said it was "prudent" for U.S. citizens in Japan to evacuate beyond a 50-mile radius of the reactors, in stark contrast to the 12-mile radius recommended by the Japanese government. In a briefing today, Jackzo stated that the U.S is and will continue to work closely with Japan to monitor these nuclear reactors and currently the US has 11 technical experts on the ground collecting information and analyzing the situation.

This dire situation is a huge setback for nuclear power.  For the past few years, the industry has been undergoing what many call a renaissance for the nuclear industry.  But this disaster has renewed calls from environmental groups and some lawmakers for a more cautious approach to nuclear power projects.  On their website, The Sierra Club states they are "unequivocally opposed to nuclear power" citing the dangers of reactor safety, nuclear proliferation and long term storage of spent fuel.  Leading lawmakers have made statements urging caution on further nuclear plants.

 The nuclear industry is fighting hard to limit the negative impact on their industry.  Alex Flint, chief lobbyist for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) has had meetings with over 50 legislators and briefings for staff in packed rooms during this week.  Exelon, a major utility who is the largest owner of nuclear plants with 17 reactors in 3 states is doing the same.  For good reason, the nuclear industry is the recipient of generous U.S. taxpayer subsidies.

For starters, the US Government guarantees huge loans for nuclear power plants. Wall Street has been skeptical and hesitant to invest in nuclear energy over the years, but not our federal government.  In addition, the government insures nuclear power plants against the risk of catastrophic disaster.  Private insurance companies are extremely leery of insuring a nuclear power plant, but not the U.S. government.  Nuclear power is central to the President’s vision for a clean energy future because of its 0 emissions and the Obama Administration budget asked to triple the funding for these loan guarantees.

‘The president believes that meeting our energy needs means relying on a diverse set of energy sources that includes renewables like wind and solar, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power,” said Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman. “Information is still coming in about the events unfolding in Japan, but the administration is committed to learning from them and ensuring that nuclear energy is produced safely and responsibly here in the U.S.”

It remains to be seen what the ultimate reaction of the American public will be on the subsidizing and building of new nuclear power plants.  In 1979 after the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown, the public spurned nuclear power plants.  But things are different today and I suspect that the public will not be so quick to eschew nuclear.

However, a paper recently released from the Brattle Group made the point that  building more nuclear reactors "cannot be expected to contribute significantly to U.S. carbon emission reduction goals prior to 2030 but that investments in more-efficient buildings and factories can reduce demand now, at a tenth the cost of new nuclear supply.

What has yet to play out is whether the Washington policy makers message collides with the United States public.