Fukushima Should Foment a U.S. Political Tsunami

Japan’s government and nuclear industry, with assistance from the U.S. military, is in a desperate race to stave off multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns.

Nuclear energy is high-risk technology with catastrophic potential. Given what’s happening at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear complex, it’s time for a serious review of what our nuclear safety authorities consider improbable: a nuclear accident at one of our facilities here in the U.S.

Despite massive subsidies and research-and-development investments, not one new American nuclear power plant has been built in decades. Two reactors are slated for construction in Georgia by Southern Co., but the company hasn’t broken ground yet on that $14 billion project.

There are several reasons why Wall Street walked away from nuclear power:

  • Spiraling costs. The average capital costs for nuclear power plants increased nearly three- to four-fold between the early 1970s and 1983.
  • Inadequate technology. Even though the first nuclear reactors were deployed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, key aspects of the technology required further research and development. This was especially so for nuclear safety systems. Instead of addressing these emerging problems, the Atomic Energy Commission (which was later replaced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and an agency that became part of the Energy Department) ceased much of its research and development on light-water reactors. Since the early 1960s it has focused on the “next generation” of reactors that use plutonium as fuel.
  • Not enough standardization. Despite generic design similarities, the nation’s existing nuclear power complexes are comprised of one-of-kind facilities, each with many different characteristics.
  • The Three Mile Island accident. This 1979 disaster dramatically demonstrated nuclear power’s financial risks. The costs for constructing the failed reactor and the following clean-up of the accident were $2 billion.
  • Nuclear waste uncertainties. The inability of industry or government to forge a credible disposal path for spent fuel from nuclear reactors resulted in a ban on new construction in California in 1976. It reverberated throughout the country.

America would be better off investing in conservation, fuel efficiency, renewable energy and carbon capture technologies than building a new wave of nuclear reactors. Under the Obama administration, the Energy Department is being called on to usher in a new energy future for the U.S., but lacks the tools it needs to meet that challenge

Critical Needs

The Obama administration should fundamentally restructure the Energy Department, starting by placing its nuclearweapons complex in the Department of Defense, where it belongs, and realigning the agency with our critical needs.

The Energy Department needs to ramp up our investment in green technology and mandate stringent clean-up procedures at our existing nuclear plants. We don’t need yet another major nuclear power accident to wake up the public and decision-makers to the fact that there are better, safer and cheaper ways to generate electricity.

Robert Alvarez, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as a senior policy adviser to the Energy Department’s secretary and deputy assistant secretary from 1993 to 1999. www.ips-dc.org