How nuclear power is perceived by the general public will take decades to return to what it was a week ago. (Kind of like radioactive decay.) But the list of immutable and defining characteristics of the technology is long one and nothing that happens in Japan is likely to change them. First up: the daunting economics.
Each gigawatt reactor costs upwards of $14 billion these days. And climbing. As the increasingly useful Climopedia at Climate Central puts it: “the question on many peoples’ minds today is not what the last nuclear power plant cost, but rather what the next nuclear plant will cost to build.” And no one wants to put up a loan for a project with unknown costs. This is why utilities keep trying to get state regulators to let them hike electricity rates before they even get approval to build a new nuclear power plant; the usual sources of major infrastructure funding won’t touch these things.
While the capital and operating costs of renewables, most notably solar PV and thermal plants, keep falling, nuclear’s is on the opposite slope. In the medium and long-term, this is a fatal flaw. Yes, we could make nuclear power cheaper by loosening regulations, the environmental review process, and safety protocols, but does anyone really want to include such a plank in a re-election campaign?
Then there’s the problem of what to do with the waste. The “temporary” cooling ponds will eventually fill up and, sooner or later, someone is going to lose the NIMBY wars. From a technical and ecological point of view, this shouldn’t be difficult, but the more waste we produce, the shorter the list of suitable sites grows. So overcoming the political hurdles will only get harder if we keep producing the stuff. Reprocessing is expensive, doesn’t completely eliminate the need for disposal, and raises the specter of the third inescapable challenge: the proliferation of weapons-grade fissile material, about which nothing more needs to be said (but here’s a link anyway).
Finally, we have the problem of lost opportunity. It takes 12 or 15 years to build a nuclear plant, in part because the safety issues require careful and, as the Fukushima disaster makes clear, necessary regulatory oversight drags out the process. Solar, wind, and other renewables can be built much faster because there simply aren’t any “worst-case” scenarios to worry about. (OMG, the solar panels are dirty!) And given the need to start replacing fossil-fuels with zero-carbon alternatives within the next decade (see the countdown clock on the left-hand sidebar) if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, we can’t afford to wait for nuclear.
To wrap up and clarify: What happened in Japan does not change these fundamentals. It may enhance them to one degree or another — increasing the regulatory scrutiny or strengthening safety protocols, thus further hiking costs. But nuclear power’s disadvantages were writ large last month and they remain so.
If a way can be found around any of them, by developing thorium reactors, for example, then the technology should be reevaluated honestly and dispassionately, regardless of the literal and figurative fallout from Fukushima.
For more on this vein, see Greg Laden’s thoughts.