By James Pethokoukis
Shutting down nuclear power plants is a lot easier than generating reliable, carbon-free energy. As The New York Times reports on the tenth anniversary of the meltdown of three nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan, following a massive earthquake-tsunami: “As the share of nuclear energy in Japan has plummeted from about a third of total power to the single digits, the void has been filled in part by coal and natural gas, complicating a promise that the country made late last year to be carbon-neutral by 2050.”
Indeed, a member of the government’s advisory committee on energy policy said the nation’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 would be hard with nuclear — but, he was quoted by the Financial Times, “In my view, without nuclear it is close to impossible.” (So far just a fifth of the 50 shut-down reactors have been restarted.) In that same NYT piece, reporters Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno tell the story of what’s been happening in Suttsu, an “ailing fishing town” on Japan’s northernmost major island of Hokkaido. There’s been a big pushback by residents — a firebomb was tossed at the mayor’s home — upset that the mayor agreed to volunteer the town for a government study on potential locations for spent nuclear fuel rods. No commitment, just a study.
Before Fukushima, the pieces continues, resource-poor Japan had come to accept its need for nuclear power. That, despite its World War II history. Perhaps reality will be accepted once again given (a) no fatalities have ever been found to be directly attributable to radiation exposure from the Fukushima meltdown and (b) the reactor shut-downs have caused fatalities due to the national switch to dirtier and more expensive power generated by imported coal and oil. More of the rest of the world will also accept the need for a nuclear solution. More on that reality in a recent essay from the Breakthrough Institute’s Ted Nordhaus:
Nuclear energy is no panacea either. And perhaps we will figure out how to entirely eliminate emissions with carbon capture or clean hydrogen or something else. But the actual technological pathways to deeply decarbonizing the entire global economy are few and far between. Nuclear is without question one of them. It can do things, like providing heat for industrial processes that renewables simply cannot easily, and is still the only low-carbon technology with a demonstrated track record of significantly decarbonizing a modern, industrialized economy.
As impressive as the falling costs of wind and solar energy have been, we aren’t going to power the entire global economy with variable sources of renewable energy alone. We have no experience or proven capability to operate an electrical grid entirely with wind and solar energy, much less the other 80% of the global energy economy that doesn’t run on electricity.
Good to see the attention given to both fission and fusion energy in the “Secure American Leadership in Science and Technology Act” being put forward by Rep. Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican and ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.