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.
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.)