Topic A
First impressions on a hot topic

After Japan’s disaster, will nuclear energy have a future in America?

The Post asked energy experts, lawmakers and others how the recent events in Japan would affect the “nuclear renaissance” in the United States. Below, responses from Steven F. Hayward, Virginia Gov. Robert Mc­Don­nell (R), Robert Shrum, Ellen Vancko, Marvin Fertel, Douglas E. Schoen and Frances Beinecke.

STEVEN F. HAYWARD

Topic A

An occasional feature in which The Post asks for first impressions on a hot topic.

Archive

Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute

Japan’s nuclear disaster came at a time when nuclear power seemed poised for a new birth in the United States. Opinion polls have shown rising support for nuclear power over the past decade, after more than two decades of opposition. More significantly, environmentalists were slowly, tentatively abandoning their reflexive opposition to nuclear power because of the bigger problem of climate change. Japan’s catastrophe hits the reset button on the whole issue. One irony is that the climate campaign is a big near-term loser, as carbon dioxide emissions in Japan and Germany (which switched off seven nuclear plants) will go up.

It is remotely possible that the aftermath of this disaster might ironically lead to the go-ahead for a new generation of smaller, safer nuclear designs that are in development. If Japan can come through the worst-case scenario, it might calm our longtime nuclear phobia. But many big questions remain unresolved: Putting aside Wall Street’s reluctance to finance new nuclear plants, the insurance industry’s inability to price the risk and underwrite new plants, and Congress’s resistance to large loan guarantees, it is not clear that nuclear power can compete with suddenly cheap natural-gas-fired power on a level playing field.

ROBERT MCDONNELL (R)

Governor of Virginia

We have all watched with shock and sadness the recent events in Japan. While Americans donate generously to relief efforts, we must also keep a proper perspective about what Japan’s disaster means for energy policy here. I believe it would be most unwise to let this unprecedented tragedy lead to the retraction or abandonment of the American nuclear energy industry. Nuclear energy is clean, reliable, affordable and critical to generating the volume of electricity we need to power our homes and businesses and grow our economy.

Virginia is home to two nuclear facilities, in Surry and Louisa counties. They generate roughly 40 percent of our electricity. They have multiple redundant systems to provide backup electrical power. The stations were also analyzed against worst-case acts of nature, such as earthquakes, floods and hurricanes, and modified as necessary to protect them. There are 19 emergency drills scheduled for this year.

We must use all our God-given resources here in America to pursue our goal of greater energy security. Nuclear energy is an important part of our energy portfolio. Virginia is moving forward with plans to build a third reactor in Louisa, and I support that effort. We should of course learn from the tragedy in Japan and use the unparalleled ingenuity and know-how of American scientists and our free-enterprise system to ensure that our nuclear plants continue to be prepared and improved. What we should not do is turn our back on an industry that provides needed clean and affordable energy while creating good jobs for Americans.

ROBERT SHRUM

Democratic strategist and senior fellow at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service

This is not the end of nuclear power but the end of the fantasy that a nuclear deus ex machina can redeem our energy economy from dependence on foreign oil.

Post-Three Mile Island, no new nuclear plants were built in the United States. As the memory faded, a near-consensus developed — among many former doubters and even opponents — in favor of new investment in what Dwight Eisenhower called “atoms for peace.”

At the front edge of that apparently comfortable (and now obviously complacent) moment, the atomic promise became menace again in Japan.

Apologists for the industry will work to explain away the accident. Anti-nuclear activists will tout it as a warning of catastrophic danger. Caught between the polarities of energy needs and nuclear fear, public policy will compromise — or, more bluntly, muddle through.

Post-Fukushima, the United States will impose more stringent safety tests and standards. New plants will be built, but older ones will be phased out sooner if, for example, they’re the same cut-rate model that failed in Japan — we have plenty of them here — or if they’re located on similarly vulnerable terrain.

NIMBYism will be harder to overcome as people demand more energy — but don’t want it generated at a reactor anywhere nearby.

Nations such as China will build fast and take higher risks. In Western democracies, the turn to nuclear power will be slowed but not stopped. Of course, nuclear history could suggest a better course: a Manhattan project on alternative energy. That’s been talked about since even before Three Mile Island; it just never seems to happen. But nuclear accidents do.

ELLEN VANCKO

Nuclear Energy and Climate Change Project Manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists

With Japan’s nuclear disaster still unfolding, not all lessons have been learned, but a few things are already clear:

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission must review the safety of U.S. nuclear plants and ensure that existing rules and regulations are stringently enforced and that any new nuclear plants are significantly safer than existing ones. Forthcoming NRC regulations that will require owners to integrate security measures into reactor designs should specify that the NRC — not reactor owners — will determine which measures meet that criterion.

The nuclear renaissance in the United States was in trouble long before Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. Spiraling construction cost estimates, declining energy demand, low costs of natural gas and the government’s failure to place a price on carbon already threatened the industry’s future. This month the nation’s top nuclear executive told a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute that he would not invest in new nuclear reactors because they are not economically competitive — nor will be for the next decade or two — when compared with such other low-carbon alternatives as energy efficiency, natural gas and upgrading the generating capacity of existing reactors. (I would add cost-effective windpower and other renewable energy technologies to the list.)

It is impossible to fully plan for natural disasters, but we can at least put in place all practical mechanisms to protect our citizens and environment from known hazards. Utilities and first responders are not yet prepared to respond to a combination of disruptive events, natural or man-made, that could damage critical infrastructure and precipitate a nuclear accident. Adding more safety features to nuclear reactors will make nuclear power more expensive, as will improving our emergency preparedness, compared with other, less risky low-carbon energy alternatives. The American people will need to decide how much safety they want to pay for.

MARVIN FERTEL

President and chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Institute

It is premature to reach conclusions, but I believe that expansion of the nuclear energy sector will proceed. Our industry has been forecasting the development of four to eight new reactors between 2016 and 2020; four are under development. The forecast beyond 2020 is unclear simply because so much depends on market conditions.

Over the past week, industry leaders have reached out to their customers and met with members of Congress and other policymakers to ensure that they understand the facts in Japan. Broadly speaking, these meetings show that support for nuclear energy remains strong. As national leaders seek to enhance our energy security with an expanded domestic portfolio, they are doing so based on the full knowledge of nuclear plant capabilities and our steadfast commitment to safety.

The president and congressional leaders have had a measured response to the Fukushima accident based on their understanding of the U.S. nuclear energy safety record and its unique contributions to the nation’s electricity portfolio: power plants that generate low-carbon electricity virtually around the clock, with an industry-average capacity factor of 90 percent; and a key component of a diversified energy mix that enhances national security.

The tragic forces of nature and the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant will have repercussions for our industry but also will result in changes for the better. President Obama has reassured our nation that there is no threat to public health from the Japanese accident and that the U.S. industry is safe. Every U.S. nuclear power plant is reexamining the programs in place to respond to extreme natural events or significant loss of critical plant systems.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

There will be no new nuclear renaissance in the United States, and there frankly shouldn’t be one, until we know the full extent of the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

That means that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should put on hold its review of the 20 license applications from companies eager to initiate or complete new nuclear plants.

It also means that the president’s proposed $36 billion for loan guarantees to construct new facilities should also be frozen.

Before the tragedy in Japan, those of us in the center were advocating bipartisanship to promote a broader-based expansion of the use of nuclear power as part of our energy mix.

Now we need a different kind of bipartisanship to promote more offshore drilling and the development of domestic energy resources.

What happened in Japan can be a trigger of a new commitment to energy independence, casting aside divisive fights about cap-and-trade and concentrating on bringing the right and left together to address one of our huge national challenges.

FRANCES BEINECKE

President of the Natural Resources Defense Council

The future of nuclear power in America depends on whether plants are safe, cost-effective and environmentally sound. The crisis in Japan underscores the fact that these critical concerns have not been fully addressed.

The explosions, fires and radioactive releases from Daiichi are resulting from the failure of cooling water pumps following the loss of electricity. The majority of U.S. nuclear reactors have just four hours of backup capability, which poses serious risks in the event of our own disaster.

Threats at Daiichi are also coming from spent fuel pools. Tons of spent fuel are in similar pools at U.S. reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should require that fuel be moved out of pools and into safer, hardened casks once the fuel has cooled.

We also need an environmentally safe geologic repository for nuclear waste, which is radioactive for thousands of years. Such waste must be safely stored if nuclear power is to be used, and we need to address the harm done to water and lands from the entire nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to plant operations.

Taxpayers pony up billions of dollars in nuclear subsidies each year to guarantee loans and assume the risks of a catastrophic disaster. After more than five decades, this mature industry shouldn’t rely on public subsidies. That money should be invested instead in energy efficiency and the development of safer, sustainable sources of power and fuel. Creating an energy future that strengthens our economy and makes our country more secure transcends politics and ideology. That’s where Democrats and Republicans alike can, and should, find common ground.

 
Read what others are saying