My thoughts and prayers have been and will continue to be with the people of Japan. Their suffering is both a tragedy and testimony to the fragility of even the most developed infrastructure.

It is also a reminder of the sometimes alarming ubiquity of our energy supply system. Almost a year after the Deepwater oil spill began in the Gulf of Mexico, the people of Japan and around the world are watching as another potential oversized disaster unfolds due to a crack in the global energy pipeline. The Daiichi reactor in Fukushima, Japan suffered structural damage as a result of the 8.9 point earthquake on Friday, and three explosions caused by excessive sea water flooding have only made the situation worse. Perhaps because of our energy infrastructure’s ubiquity, disasters like these are bound to happen, but nuclear accidents are the ones that seem to rattle public confidence most profoundly. It is important to understand such disasters in the proper context in order to learn from mistakes and not unduly handicap any options in the critical quest for cleaner energy.

Fortunately, speaking in disaster orders of magnitude, the still unresolved emergency at the Daiichi facilities will most likely resemble a Three Mile Island as opposed to a Chernobyl. Engineers on the ground appear confident, and James F. Stubbins of the University of Illinois says “the likelihood there will be a huge fire like at Chernobyl or a major environmental release like at Chernobyl, I think that’s basically impossible.”

The question that many in the US are asking now, however, is what this accident will mean for US energy policy going forward. As John Broder reported over the weekend in NYT:

Until this weekend, President Obama, mainstream environmental groups and large numbers of Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed that nuclear power offered a steady energy source and part of the solution to climate change, even as they disagreed on virtually every other aspect of energy policy. Mr. Obama is seeking tens of billions of dollars in government insurance for new nuclear construction, and the nuclear industry in the United States, all but paralyzed for decades after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, was poised for a comeback.

Nuclear power’s comeback may have hit a speed bump, or at least picked up a few skeptical passengers. Nevertheless, as Broder points out, the Administration is following through on its commitment to nuclear in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, and regulators at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission claim that America’s nuclear power plants will be safe in natural disasters. That very well may be the case, but the safety of our existing fleet of 104 reactors hasn’t precipitated the construction of a single new plant since 1979, when the victimless accident at Three Mile Island put the American nuclear industry in stasis.

With public health and safety concerns certainly piqued by events in Japan, political and financial obstacles to a nuclear renaissance may have sharpened as well. As I opined recently, nuclear power may actually be one of the most popular forms of energy considered by Congress in recent years, and certainly the most popular form capable of generating baseload power. The effects of the Japanese disaster on American politics are yet to be seen, but don’t expect them to be zero.

Additionally, the private sector has long bemoaned the extreme regulatory hurdles and capital costs associated with breaking new ground on a nuclear site, and any legislation seeking to erect new power plants was likely to both standardize structural facility design and streamline the permitting process. But whereas a week ago the prospect of a cheaper, quicker process for installing new nuclear power seemed welcome, now it may seem to many like rushing into things. Even if Congress follows through on its fairly widespread support for nuclear power, the myriad of concerns raised vividly by the Daiichi accident may weigh heavily on the minds of our legislators.

The dangers exposed by this debate extend even farther when we consider the big picture. Say we somehow agree to some threshold of n disasters divided by total nuclear capacity as an acceptable future. Even if n ≤ 0, we would still have to weigh that calculation against the arguably much more dangerous carbon infrastructure that nuclear power would replace. As Americans for Energy Leadership has written, the environmental, health/safety, and geopolitical consequences of the carbon economy are vast. And though the casualty count for coal and oil accidents is much higher than for nuclear, again, the nuclear catastrophes really seem to stick in our collective psyche.

Basis: per million MWe operating for one year, not including plant construction, based on historic data which is unlikely to represent current safety levels in any of the industries concerned. | Sources: Ball, Roberts & Simpson, 1994; Hirschberg et al, Paul Scherrer Institut 1996, in: IAEA 1997; Paul Scherrer Institut, 2001.

Basis: per million MWe operating for one year, not including plant construction, based on historic data which is unlikely to represent current safety levels in any of the industries concerned. | Sources: Ball, Roberts & Simpson, 1994; Hirschberg et al, Paul Scherrer Institut 1996, in: IAEA 1997; Paul Scherrer Institut, 2001.

However, any form of decarbonization of our energy economy in the near future is unlikely without substantial help from the “nuclear wedge”, says Broder:
“’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.”
The danger in this case, then, is what will happen if we don’t expand our nuclear capacity.

We should not be alarmists. The maintenance of, and revolution in, our energy infrastructure will not occur by comparing death tolls. But in the aftermath of events like the disaster at Fukushima, it is difficult not to suffer a little sobriety at the prospect of moving in any direction on energy. We are frightened by the possibility of a meltdown, just as we face the daunting task of decarbonization. However, to be rather mechanistic, the direct casualties resulting from any nuclear contamination or explosion should not be tallied independently from other injuries resulting from this natural disaster. We need to be careful not to blame nuclear technology for damage done by a tsunami, just as we would not blame an architect if an unusually strong earthquake destroyed a house (as this one did many).

This is neither an “accidents happen” moment, nor a time to point fingers. And we do not dishonor a tragedy or exercise hubris by compelling forward reasons for optimism in the arena of nuclear energy debate. As AEL’s Dan O’Connor recently pointed out, nuclear power carries with it the benefits of base load power generation and capacity factors exceeding 90%, the highest in the business. The impressive contribution of nuclear power has shrunk the carbon intensity (in this case, carbon intensity = kgCO₂/MWh) in economies like France, Sweden and, yes, Japan (see Table 1 – credit to CARMA).
Table 1. CO2 emissions from electricity generation
CountryElectricity generated(a)CO2emissions (b)Energy mix (c)Carbon intensity(d)
 TWehmillion tonsfossilhydronuclearkg CO2/MWeh
South Africa21519893%0%6%920
Czech Republic785865%3%30%742
United States4190255869%7%18%611
Taiwan (China)21812459%4%17%570
United Kingdom37020671%1%20%557
South Korea39217444%1%35%444
Saudi Arabia1676499%0%0%385
Finland (e)98298%4%7%295
World Total1883010377---551
The data are taken from the CARMA database.
The data are for the year 2007.
The table shows the 35 countries with the highest electricity production in 2007.
These 35 countries accounted for 90.1% of world electrical energy generation, and 92.7% of world CO2 emissions from electricity generation in 2007.
The table is sorted in order of decreasing carbon intensity.
The largest value in each column is highlighted.
The emissions data are for electricity generation alone.
The energy mix data are for electricity generation alone, not for total energy use.
The data show emissions during operation, not for the whole life cycle of the generating plant.
(a) The units of electrical energy generated are terawatt-hours.
(b) The units of carbon dioxide emissions are millions of metric tons.
(c) The fossil fuel fraction in the energy mix combines gas, oil, coal and lignite use.
(d) The units of carbon intensity are kilograms of CO2 emitted per megawatt-hour of electricity generated.
(e) The data for Finland differ from Finnish industry data. The discrepancy is marked in the table.
The benefits of nuclear power are surely non-negligible, perhaps even wholly impressive, and certainly so for those whose goal is to get us off coal and oil. We should not seek to admonish caution, but the questions raised by accidents do not void the answers given by successes. Therefore, as we undergo a transformation in our energy infrastructure, we must simultaneously take precautions for safety while vigorously exploring new opportunities for decarbonization.
Three mile island photo by Merlin1075.