After Fukushima What is the Future of Nuclear Energy

The following is a guest post by Martin Cheek co-author of Clean Energy Nation: Freeing America from the Tyranny of Fossil Fuels.

President Obama’s ambitious plan to resurrect nuclear power in America might have literally been hit by a tsunami. In his 2011 State of the Union address, Obama proposed committing our nation to providing $36 billion in federal loan guarantees to promote the construction of new nuclear reactors. Facing the fallout of Fukushima, his plan might now be dead in the coolant water.

The world is now watching with anxious eyes Japan’s ongoing nuclear nightmare following the 9.0 earthquake and the resulting massive wave that swept the island nation on March 11, 2011. Leaders in Europe – especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel – are reevaluating their nuclear strategies as brave engineers at Fukushima attempt to regain control of the nuclear power plant hit hard by the recent natural disaster. Depending on what happens in the on-going radiation calamity over the next several months, the political and social fallout from Fukushima might terminate America’s nascent “nuclear renaissance.”

Even before Fukushima, the resurgence in building new nuclear power plants in America faced great uncertainty. Our nation’s leaders still need to decide where to permanently store spent nuclear fuel after Obama put the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository project in Nevada in political limbo in 2010. Fukushima also is a wake-up call to the dangers America faces by keeping tens of thousands of metric tons of nuclear fuel in water-cooled storage pools that are potentially vulnerable to natural disaster or terrorist attack.

Time and taxpayer dollars are two other factors Americans are now taking into account in deciding whether to go forward with America’s nuclear renaissance. Even before the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the nuclear industry’s record of long construction delays and massive escalation of costs made investors apprehensive and forced utility companies to cancel reactor construction projects.

The next-generation reactors will most likely exceed $10 billion each to build if cost overruns occur and if the Fukushima disaster forces politicians to demand more expensive safety measures. And 20 years from now when new American reactors might come online at a time when the world’s commercial-grade uranium supplies are starting to peak, the nuclear industry might not be able to financially compete against the cost of producing energy from wind and solar resources, now steadily dropping as technology improves and mass production ramps up. Unused reactors might stand as the ruins of a dream of folly.

Wall Street remains tepid about nuclear power. Based on past performance from the nuclear industry, many investors are wary of the risks – even when the government promises taxpayer dollars to hedge the bet. The many billions of yen Japan will pay to clean up the Fukushima catastrophe will make American investors even more averse to putting nuclear power in their portfolios.

For more than four decades, Americans dreamed that the energy from uranium atoms would live up to its promise of reducing our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels. As Congressman Jerry McNerney and I show in our new book Clean Energy Nation: Freeing America from the Tyranny of Fossil Fuels building a revitalized American economy on renewable resources and with the “less is more” benefits of modern efficiency technologies is a much safer and more solid hope for gaining our fuel freedom.

Martin Cheek has worked as a journalist for more than two decades, specializing in science and high-tech industry. He is the co-author of Clean Energy Nation: Freeing America From the Tyranny of Fossil Fuels which will be publishing in August 2011.


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