Finding Guidance in a Japanese Catastrophe

Posted by By at 15 March, at 11 : 20 AM Print

I never thought there would be a day when a position I am taking appears to the left of President Obama’s, but the re-affirmation of his commitment to expanding nuclear power in the United States in spite of the recent events makes it look that way.

For the last 10 years or so, I was an advocate for expanding nuclear power. I did so while living just outside TMI’s mythic “10 mile radius,” a number that in light of all that is happening in Japan seems comically small, so I am hardly advocating as some NIMBY for nuke plants in Idaho. I have done so within sight of the United States’ worst nuclear disaster, and I grew up mere blocks from a reactor built in 1955.

I never actually worried about TMI, even though I saw it almost daily. And when I looked around the world I saw new and – presumably – safer nuclear reactors, a fact that made the US preoccupation with not building them seem outdated.

But then the crisis in Japan occurred. I am not, per se, totally abandoning nuclear power. But I am asking some extremely tough questions about my own perceptions. And the conclusion I keep coming back to is the technology needs more time to get the risk down even farther.

I reached this conclusion because of the fact that the reactors in Japan were built in a place where earthquakes and tsunamis are hardly unknown – even if the magnitude of the events last week were on an unprecedented scale – and yet the buildings were not prepared for the trauma. The risk of a cataclysmic failure – one that would render hundreds and thousands of square miles uninhabitable for a generation or more – remains too high, even at its minimal current risk.

In the words of fellow RTC commentator Andrew Stein, “you spend all this money and hope you don’t have the one bad day.” The risk of that “bad day,” coupled with the knowledge that we do not need nukes just yet, makes it logical to delay the further use of nuclear power.

But if we are going to take nuke out of the equation, we do have to replace that projected capacity with other modes of electric generation. It is this dilemma that is, I suspect, fueling President Obama’s continued commitment to nuclear power. The reason is as obvious as the answer: without nuclear power, coal is not going anywhere, natural gas must be expanded, and domestic oil production will have to increase. And from his first days on the campaign trail, President Obama has opposed in total or in part all of those solutions.

Let me be clear: I think we should continue to study the use and development of nuclear power – as we have for the last 33 years even as we stopped building large-scale reactors. There will come a day when the risk associated with nuclear electric generation is worth it – or so reduced as to be negligible.

But until we reach that point it makes sense that we use proven technologies powered by resources we possess in abundance. That means not attacking existing coal, expanding natural gas, and increasing the development of domestic oil (ironically, a position upon which George W. Bush and Bill Clinton agree. Read more about it by clicking Rock The Capital.

The generation of electric power – by implication, nuclear power – has become even more central to the Administration’s push for a greener United States. By subsidizing and advocating for electric and hybrid technology, a mistake for other reasons, President Obama has put electric generation at the heart of our future transportation model. Hybrid cars, or cars such as the new fully electric “Volt, a subsidized creation of Chevy that is a nightmare when you peel the onion – needs electricity to run. Some of that is generation from the vehicle itself (meaning that the batteries are charged by oil) or by plugging it in (making them the least efficient coal powered cars ever).

With our already existing electric demand on the rise from mere population pressures, the idea that we can easily shift transportation to an electric models is problematic IF you also are at war with power plant emissions. Bluntly, you need a trade off – unless we go back to bikes and horses.

That is what the disaster in Japan is forcing on us. It’s not enough to say “no more nuke;” if we do delay additional nuclear power then it necessarily means MORE of something else.

The answer is right under our feet. Natural gas is the fuel of the second American century, and its expanded use and application in the near term, in my layman’s opinion, the best alternative to expanding other sources.

Just like natural gas cars are easier to build and cause less pollution than hybrids (yup, I said it). But that is a fight for another day.

For now, we must re-assess our electric generation needs in light of the realities we face. If expanded nuclear power is not part of the mix, and we continue to de-emphasize coal, then natural gas must be expanded.

Nuclear power’s day will come, I have no doubt; but until we can reduce the risk of that “bad day” even further, and as long as we have abundant natural gas, there is no need to hasten that day.

(Follow me on Twitter @scottpaterno)

(In Germany, Chancellor Angel Merkel has ordered the temporary shutdown of several nuclear power stations, you can see more about the raging debate over it in the video.)

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This post was written by:
- who has written 77 posts for Rock The Capital
Scott Paterno is an accomplished policy analyst and political consultant based in Hershey, PA. Mr. Paterno, never one to sit still, has practiced law, run for a house seat, and worked as lobbyist in Harrisburg and Washington. Paterno is Vice Chairman of the Sustainable Energy Fund and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Political Science. He is happily married with three children. - Email scottp

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