The Question:How likely is it the horrific tragedy in Japan will rewrite Prime Minister Kan’s story, from that of an unpopular politician facing scandal to a strong leader guiding a country through crisis?
The ongoing disaster in Japan challenges Prime Minister Naoto Kan and also leaders in other countries to finally question their national energy policies. The growing consensus favoring increased use of nuclear power has been shaken by the failure of the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant to withstand the combination of earthquake and tsunami. Nations favoring large-scale nuclear power have been reawakened to its vulnerabilities. The Swiss have cancelled plans for new plants and the Germans have rejected a proposal to delay the decommissioning of older reactors.
The reaction in this country is just beginning. We already hear a gathering of voices calling for a moratorium on building nuclear plants because the danger of an explosion, however unlikely, is not only a threat to life but also to the reliability of grid-based power in a nation. Experts point to an increasing frequency of larger earthquakes, and if one like the Japanese earthquake occurred, nuclear plants on the West Coast and areas adjacent to the New Madrid fault region in the Midwest would be extremely vulnerable. Others respond that with more advanced methods, nuclear plants can be made safer than Fukushima Dai-ichi where back-up systems failed and should be built in less vulnerable locations. They argue that the alternatives to nuclear--including coal and natural gas--bring effects which, while not as devastating, are more likely to be destructive.
However, if a large earthquake were to strike the West Coast or the New Madrid region, grid-based power would collapse along the coast or the midsection of this country. With grid-based power unavailable for extended periods, backup power would last only as long as fuel supplies lasted for backup generators.
Given that grid is also vulnerable from electromagnetic attacks by rogue nations or coronal mass ejection from the sun, there are strong reasons to rethink our energy policy, not only in terms of the type of energy employed, but in terms of improving the whole system.
A way of improving energy security is to begin decentralizing the nation’s energy infrastructure. Disasters or attacks are more likely to collapse a centralized energy structure, causing widespread loss of clean water as well as electrical power. By supporting private R&D initiatives in advanced energy and subsidizing existing decentralized energy resources and technologies, the nation would be better able to survive catastrophic events.
There is no way to predict when future earthquakes, tsunamis, solar storms or terrorist attacks will occur. But we know they can happen. Now, with heightened awareness of what is at stake, this is a time for President Obama to assemble a presidential commission to chart a systemic energy policy. Its members should include scientists, energy innovators, military leaders who have been promoting alternative energy, and knowledgeable members of Congress. In contrast to the closed energy discussions led by Vice President Dick Cheney, there should be open hearings where environmentalists and critics of current policy can be heard. Meanwhile, the president should explore executive powers for supporting decentralized initiatives.
Michael Maccoby | Mar 16, 2011 11:31 AM