The ongoing threat of a meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan in the aftermath of last week’s earthquake and tsunami has heated up the debate over the future of nuclear energy in the U.S. as well.
Nuclear energy has been one of the most controversial energy sources in the United States for decades. In the 1950s the perception was that nuclear energy had been rehabilitated from being nothing more than a devastating force of wartime destruction. However, public approval of it began to turn against nuclear power as a result of the country’s growing environmental movement, and its popularity suffered tremendously due to the 1979 meltdown of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and the 1986 meltdown and explosion at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union (now the Ukraine).
Those two accidents dramatically demonstrated one of the two major problems of nuclear power – the sudden and potentially deadly release of a large amount of radioactive material. The second major problem is the disposal of the radioactive waste created during the production of electricity. The waste has the unfortunate distinction of being deadly for thousands to millions of years. The United States has yet to implement a long-term plan for the disposal of this material, which is currently being held in temporary locations around the country.
Despite these issues, nuclear power had begun to appear as a reasonable alternative to fossil fuels once again after 2000. This was due to a combination of the increase in oil prices, and concern over the matter of global warming. The more immediate threat of global warming even convinced some environmentalists to re-evaluate nuclear power, as it did at least have the benefit of not increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The incident at Fukushima Dai-ichi has re-fired the old debate though. Nuclear power foes argue against it based on the historic arguments of safety and waste disposal. Interestingly, they have also found agreement from some conservatives who oppose nuclear power due to the large amount of federal money that would likely to be spent to subsidize the construction of new plants. Supporters emphasize the lower rate of waste product generation as compared to fossil fuels and the overall safety record of the industry – pointing out the abnormal circumstances surrounding Chernobyl (negligent design and operation) and Fukushima Dai-ichi (devastating natural disaster).
As noted recently in Time Magazine, hidden in the debate though, is the fact that there is very little appetite in the energy industry itself for constructing additional nuclear power plants. A new reactor can easily cost billions of dollars, which is far from being competitive with other sources, such as natural gas, that are also cleaner than coal and oil. Few energy companies want to put up with the cost, safety regulations, and public scrutiny that come with nuclear power.
In the end, despite the argument between those who like to pose nuclear energy in the terms of a moral dilemma, due to plain economic realty there is likely to be little increase or decrease in the country’s reliance on nuclear power.