Nuclear Power's Unchanging Plight

Nuclear is the fuel of the future-and always will be


Just as congressional Republicans and the Obama administration had been pushing nuclear power, the disaster in Japan arrived to complicate matters. Proponents of atomic energy fear an unfair, crippling backlash. But the crisis only confirms that in this country, nuclear is the fuel of the future—and always will be.

Over the past 40 years, plenty of things have happened that should have worked to its advantage. There was the energy crisis of the 1970s. There was the threat of climate change brought on by fossil fuels.

There were clean air laws that raised costs for coal-burning plants. There have been huge oil spills and more price spikes in the petroleum market.

But none of it has made much difference. Nuclear energy provided 19 percent of U.S. electricity in 1990, and it provides 20 percent today. Even before the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant went down, that share was not expected to grow. Last year, the federal Energy Information Administration projected that in 2035, it will be no more than 17 percent.

Nuclear has two major challenges. The first is cost, and the second is safety. Neither has been solved, and neither is about to be.

It's hard for atomic energy to compete with fossil fuels in the United States, which are plentiful and cheap. A 2008 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said nuclear is generally about one-third more expensive than the least expensive forms of power (coal, natural gas, and geothermal). Even with big federal subsidies, nuclear is pricier than gas.

The natural gas market is volatile, but no matter. The modern gas power plant, concluded CRS, "is a competitive generating technology under a wide variety of assumptions for fuel price, construction cost, government incentives and carbon controls."

For a while, it looked as though nuclear energy would get a lift from climate change. Coal and gas produce greenhouse gases. Nuclear doesn't. If carbon emissions were restricted under a cap-and-trade system, nuclear reactors soon would be in great demand.

Nice theory, but the president's cap-and-trade plan went nowhere on Capitol Hill. A candidate in coal-rich West Virginia aired an ad in which he blasted away at a copy of the bill with a rifle. And he was a Democrat.

Since then, the Environmental Protection Agency has announced it will regulate greenhouse gases. But how much it will do is anyone's guess. If Republicans have their way, it will lose its power to do anything.

Various likely GOP presidential candidates, from Mitt Romney to Sarah Palin, want to expand nuclear energy. But the GOP is steadfastly opposed to the policy change that would help it most. Without limits on carbon emissions, nuclear is going nowhere.

Romney says he can't "understand why some environmental activists still consider nuclear power such a bogeyman." Hmmm. Maybe the prospect of uncontrolled leaks of deadly radiation across large geographic areas? Yeah, that could be it.

Other forms of energy, to be fair, carry dangers of their own. Coal mines have fatal accidents. Eleven oil workers were killed last summer when a platform blew up in the Gulf of Mexico. By contrast, no one has ever died in a commercial nuclear power accident in this country.

But that's not quite the whole story, is it? The Japan catastrophe is a reminder that while reactors rarely suffer major accidents, the ones that occur create hazards slightly more alarming than a mine collapse.

"If there is a significant release of radiation, then conceivably several thousand people could (get) cancer in the next several years to decades," said Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, in an interview on the Council on Foreign Relations website.

Large areas could be uninhabitable for months. Unlike miners and rig workers, who can quit anytime they choose, most of the people in jeopardy from a nuclear meltdown have no choice.

It's comforting to hear that modern reactors are better designed and that the Japanese experience will help prevent future accidents. But if overly stringent safety regulation is what's keeping nuclear energy down, down is where it's going to stay.

In recent years, there has been talk of a major shift toward uranium-based power, which we can now be sure is not about to happen. When it comes to nuclear energy, hopes are made to be dashed.