Half the world seems to think the planet needs nuclear power more than ever. The other half seems just as sure that now’s the time to get rid of it forever. There’s never been a time when nuclear power wasn’t controversial, but the discussion has perhaps never been so polarized. It’s a collision between long-term concerns over global warming — which gives nuclear power appeal as a practical form of carbon-free energy — and anxieties heightened by three reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima plant in northern Japan on March 11, 2011. Nowhere are the conflicts more evident than within Japan.
The world’s 436 nuclear reactors produce about 12 percent of its electricity. Seventy-two more are under construction. In the U.K., where a fifth of the electricity comes from nuclear power, the government has ambitious expansion plans. Germany is headed in the opposite direction: Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to close all of its nuclear plants by 2022. China, choked by air pollution, plans a sixfold increase in nuclear power capacity by 2020; India intends to boost its nuclear resources fourfold by the same date. American utilities have shut down 10 reactors since 1996, the last time a new one went online in the U.S. Yet four new reactors are expected to become operational, in Georgia and South Carolina, sometime in 2017 or 2018. Japan went nuclear-free in September 2013 — temporarily, and not entirely by choice. The Fukushima disaster, which is still releasing radioactive particles into the atmosphere and ocean, changed the country’s thinking on nuclear power almost immediately. By March 2012, all but two of Japan’s 48 commercial nuclear reactors had been shut down either because of damage from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, or for maintenance or safety checks. The two remaining plants went offline in September. While Japanese leaders pledged to promote renewable energy sources, recent policy statements are calling nuclear power an important source of reliable energy for a nation that relies on imported fuels for 96 percent its electricity-generating needs.
Nuclear pioneers after World War II envisioned an abundance of clean energy at low cost. Before reactor accidents released radiation at Three Mile Island in the U.S. in 1979 and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union seven years later, the benefits seemed to outweigh the dangers. In recent years, nuclear power, which produces no greenhouse-gas emissions, seemed poised for a renaissance based on worries about climate change. The economic and environmental risk-reward ratios are moving targets. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are squeezing torrents of oil and gas from shale rock, pushing down prices. That reduces nuclear power’s economic value but not its appeal to opponents of the new oil-production techniques. Renewables are a small though growing part of the energy picture. Germany’s government plans to get 80 percent of its electricity from sources like solar and wind by 2050, up from about 23 percent now. Still, as of 2011, biofuels and waste accounted for 10 percent of the world’s energy supply, hydroelectricity for 2.3 percent and other renewables for about 1 percent.
Proponents of nuclear energy say accidents like the Fukushima meltdown are rare, that reactors are getting safer, and that fossil fuels are responsible for more deaths, through mine accidents and pollution. Opponents say Fukushima shows that reactors can’t be made to withstand catastrophes. They also cite the cost and environmental risks involved in disposing of nuclear waste. Better, they say, to develop cleaner sources of energy such as solar and wind power. The question is whether renewables will be enough to head off extreme global warming or whether nuclear energy is no longer an option — but a necessity.
The Reference Shelf
- Nuclear power primer by How Stuff Works.
- The U.S. government’s 2013 International Energy Outlook.
- Global statistics from the Nuclear Energy Institute, a U.S. industry lobbying group.
- Bloomberg Businessweek article on Germany’s planned nuclear phaseout.
- Information library of the World Nuclear Association, a global industry trade group.