TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Despite the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex, eliminating the technology that provides 21 percent of the United States’ electricity and 14 percent of electricity worldwide would be dangerous and unrealistic.
Our demand for electricity is largely met using coal, nuclear, large hydro, and natural gas. We need electricity — and will need much more as plug-in electrics such as the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf become popular — and for many decades to come it is going to come from some mix of those technologies.
Wind and solar energy barely contribute to either U.S. or world electricity generation, both because they cost too much and because they are available only intermittently, when the wind blows or the sun shines.
Nor are renewable technologies free of environmental problems: plans for solar arrays in the desert have been blocked over concern for endangered species habitat and wind turbines are deadly for bats and birds.
Hydro cannot supply more power in the United States because we have been reducing our hydro capacity, attempting to undo some of the environmental damage caused by large dams. Even if we were not, we have already dammed virtually every river that has hydro potential. For the foreseeable future, the demand for electricity in the United States and elsewhere is going to be met by a combination of nuclear, coal and natural gas. Each of these fuels poses a different mix of risks and benefits.
As The Economist magazine recently noted, coal-generated power kills more people per kilowatt hour through air pollutants and mining accidents than does nuclear power. Coal is also a major source of carbon emissions.
Natural gas is cheap and relatively clean to burn, but also produces carbon emissions. And many environmentalists oppose efforts to exploit America’s abundant natural gas reserves, fearing the consequences of fracking and other new techniques for unlocking underground gas reserves.
Nuclear plants are expensive and, as events in Japan demonstrate, pose risks of radiation leaks during natural disasters. But they also emit no carbon.
Eliminating them worldwide would increase carbon emissions by 2 billion tons annually, equal to the annual emissions from Germany and Japan combined. Anyone who cares about carbon emissions cannot ignore nuclear energy’s role in reducing them.
Nuclear opponents rightly criticize the past practice of massively subsidizing nuclear plants, even as they wrongly call for subsidies for wind and solar.
Borrowing money from China that our children and grandchildren will have to repay just to bolster General Electric’s profits in its massive renewable business is wrong economically and morally. Subsidies for any energy technology are a mistake. If nuclear plants are uneconomical without subsidies, they should not be built.
Nuclear opponents are also correct that the Fukushima nuclear complex revealed serious weaknesses in older technology.
The good news is that — despite a series of catastrophes of Biblical dimensions — the problems at the Japanese plant have been fewer than initially feared.
The even better news is that no one wants to build reactors using designs that predate the moon landing. For example, new reactor designs do not require active cooling methods, the breakdown of which following the power loss caused by a massive earthquake and tsunami wave created the most serious problems in Japan.
Nuclear energy’s role in our energy future should stand or fall on its ability to compete economically with other fuels, free of subsidies but also free of policies based on wishful thinking. We need electricity to power our homes, businesses, schools, and hospitals. It would be wise not to rule out nuclear.
• Andrew Morriss holds the D. Paul Jones Jr. & Charlene A. Jones Chair in Law & Professor of Business at the University of Alabama.