In the midst of the ongoing partial meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, energy experts across the spectrum are urging caution and patience in considering the implications for nuclear energy in the United States and internationally.  In particular, many energy and climate change experts note that we should not so readily dismiss nuclear power as an option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting rising global energy demand.

International Energy Agency Chief Nobuo Tanaka:

“While I understand the public’s fear, I am concerned given the important role of nuclear power. I encourage patience until more information is gathered for a full review so we can learn the lessons,” he added… ”The cost of fighting against global warming will increase, that is sure,” he told Reuters. “I think it is very difficult (to fight global warming), even impossible, without using nuclear power.”

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu:

“The president and the administration believe we have to be looking very, very closely at the events in Japan. We have to apply whatever lessons that can be and will be learned from what has happened and what is happening in Japan,” Chu explained. “Those lessons would then be applied to first look at our current existing fleet of reactors, to make sure that they can be used safely and… how as one proceeds forward, any lessons learned can be applied.

…”The administration believes we must rely on a diverse set of energy sources, including renewables like wind and solar, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power,” Chu said before a House subcommittee. “The administration is committed to learning from Japan’s experience as we work to continue to strengthen America’s nuclear industry.”

Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Chairman of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee:

“We have depended on nuclear power for many decades to meet much of our electricity needs, and I think we will continue to in the future,” said Bingaman, D-N.M. “And I do believe we can produce power safely. We’ve done that. We’ve done it for many decades.”

“Clearly we need to be sure that the design that we are using in our power plants is the very best and the safest design. And whatever changes we need to make to those designs or to the regulations of those plants we need to make. But I’m not persuaded that nuclear power should be deleted from the list of options that we look at.”

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

Nuclear power plants built in the areas usually thought of as earthquake zones, such as the California coastline, have a surprisingly low risk of damage from those earthquakes. Why? They built anticipating a major quake… The NRC, the federal agency responsible for nuclear power safety, says the odds are in the public’s favor. “Operating nuclear power plants are safe,” the NRC said when it reported the new risk estimates.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA):

Robert Engel, former IAEA inspector and Swiss nuclear engineer, told Reuters Sunday that a partial meltdown of a reactor “is not a disaster”… the current Japanese reactor crisis bear little similarity to the Soviet-era meltdown at Chernobyl, which came about through design flaws and human error before it spread a radioactive cloud across much of Europe and Asia 25 years ago.

Experts at the IAEA “aren’t planning for the next Chernobyl” says a mid-level Western diplomat familiar with how the organization works. “But nor do [they] think we are out of the woods yet. The reactors are still hot. But this situation has no relation to Chernobyl, even though I realize that in the popular lore, if you say ‘Chernobyl,’ it means ‘catastrophic meltdown.’”

Further analysis and commentary:

John Hutton, former British Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (07-08):

The fundamental question that we all need to ask is: “Is it safe for us to go on building new nuclear plants?” My answer is an emphatic “yes”… The industry has a strong safety record and there is no reason to believe that this cannot be maintained into the future – a fact that must not be drowned out by those rushing to condemn nuclear energy. We need an appropriate response to Fukushima – not a knee-jerk one.

Jason Grumet of the Bipartisan Policy Center (and former Obama energy advisor):

“It’s not possible to achieve a climate solution based on existing technology without a significant reliance on nuclear power,” said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington and an energy and climate change adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign. “It’s early to reach many conclusions about what happened in Japan and the relevance of what happened to the United States. But the safety of nuclear power will certainly be high on the list of questions for the next several months.”

Joshua Freed, Director of Clean Energy Program, Third Way:

One shouldn’t minimize the dangers faced by the workers, but even something as catastrophic as the disaster in Japan might turn out to be a lot less catastrophic in terms of damage and loss of life than we fear right now. And you have to weigh that against the health, environmental impact and assorted other costs of the fossil fuels we rely on every day. And if, like most people, you think climate change is happening and poses a massive threat, you have to ask what options we have.

Greg Evans, professor the the University of Toronto:

“In the long scheme of things I don’t believe, in terms of health effects, that this is actually going to be a big part of the outcome of this earthquake,” said Greg Evans, a professor in the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry at the University of Toronto. “Compared to the massive impact (in death and destruction) that the earthquake and tsunami have had, I don’t think that this is going to be a big contributor,” says Evans, who also heads the Southern Ontario Centre for Atmospheric Aerosol Research.

Lisbeth Gronlund of the Union of Concerned Scientists:

“This is not, and will not be, Chernobyl under any stretch of the imagination. That’s good news,” said Lisbeth Gronlund, a senior scientist and co-director of the Global Security Program at the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists. “There was no containment vessel in Chernobyl.”

Heather Timmons and Vikas Bajaj at New York Times:

With those two countries [China and India] driving the expansion — and countries from elsewhere in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East also embracing nuclear power in response to high fossil fuel prices and concerns about global warming — the world’s stock of 443 nuclear reactors could more than double in the next 15 years, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry trade group.

Sara Mansur of the Breakthrough Institute:

Carbon dioxide emissions in Germany may increase by 4 percent annually in response to a moratorium on seven of the country’s oldest nuclear power plants, as power generation is shifted from nuclear power, a zero carbon source, to the other carbon-intensive energy sources that currently make up the country’s energy supply.

Nathan Temple of the American Nuclear Society:

The sad news for the nay Sayers is that reactors are safer than ever and US reactors are designed such that they shutdown when something goes wrong. Current reactor technology (these are the designs that are being licensed and built in the US and around the world) uses less equipment and less automation, focusing on passive systems. Passive is the key. New reactors do not need electricty to keep the shutdown core cool. Unlike the Japanese and current operating reactors which require offsite or emergency power to pump coolant water into the shutdown reactor.

David Kroodsma at Climate Central:

The bottom line is that a major earthquake would probably not result in a nuclear meltdown at the reactors on the above map [of the contiguous United States], but it could present significant engineering challenges. Quantifying the risks, and minimizing them as much as possible, is a key task for everyone involved in the nuclear energy industry.

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6 Responses to “Nuclear Reaction Roundup: Experts Warn Against Dismissing Nuclear Power”

  1. LJS says:

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    Of course they do – they’re vested in continuing the fiction that nuclear is safe and cheap. It was never cheap, nor safe. And we are learning that once again – but we’ll be soothingly told that the “new” plants are all safe – until we find out they aren’t. Same bait and switch marketing that Pols love to use – promise one thing – and when the learn it isn’t true, it’s too late.

  2. R Margolis says:

    Another factor is that Japan is likely to consume more LNG which will drive up the price. Many countries such as South Korea are highly dependent on LNG, so the higher price may make nuclear more attractive.

  3. David Lewis says:

    It will be interesting to see what can be, and what is learned from this.

    People in the nuclear industry who do not believe CO2 is a legitimate problem: consider how well founded the arguments of the anti nuclear people who are in high dudgeon as these events unfold appear to you right now. Climatologists see the arguments of climate science deniers, i.e., you, in that same way.

  4. [...] Alex Trembath provides an extensive round-up of arguments in favor of keeping nuclear power as part of the U.S. energy strategy: “ In particular, many energy and climate change experts note that we should not so readily dismiss nuclear power as an option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting rising global energy demand” [...]

  5. Emily McGlynn says:

    I find it interesting that all the comparisons I’ve read are with Chernobyl, which of course was much worse than this meltdown — however, the Fukushima disaster is itself is comparatively worse than Three Mile Island was, which did similar damage to public perception of nuclear (and I would argue, rightly so). It also seems there’s a lot more useful comparison, system design-wise, between Three Mile Island and Fukushima rather than with Chernobyl (see here: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2011/03/1103165-japan-nuclear-chernobyl-three-mile-island/) – but a less politically positive one. I don’t know if it is fair to the people of Japan and of past nuclear disasters to dismiss this one so quickly.

  6. R Margolis says:

    I do not think the accident is being dismissed, rather it could be getting placed within context. This is the first large multi-reactor accident, yet the consequences will probably be less than Chernobyl. If I might add a few observations:

    1) We are seeing that design differences matter. Chernobyl was a larger scale accident because the reactor was able to have a runaway chain reaction and the higher impurity graphite (compared with gas cooled reactors such as Ft. St. Vrain and HTTR) provided the drivers that do not exist at TMI or Fukushima.

    2) While it appears that the pool situation is being stabilized, spent fuel pool management will be a topic of discussion. My personal view is that regulators will consider increased dry casking of fuel.

    3) There will be other lessons learned as a result of Fukushima. We will have to see how things play out and what is learned once agencies such as WANO, IAEA, etc. investigate.

    4) While there may be some hiatus in the countries involved in nuclear build, most likely new build will continue (though with probable changes in design and emergency planning). LNG prices will probably rise as Japan recovers and uses more. This price increase will make nuclear, even with any resulting cost adders, more attractive in countries who are dependent on LNG.

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