For the last few weeks, I’ve been planning a Slate-style contrarian post, arguing that the US and maybe other countries should increase the subsidies for nuclear power associated with the attempt to launch a ‘nuclear renaissance’. My argument would have been two-fold. First, the straightforward point that it’s desirable to explore all options for non-carbon based electricity, and that the existing subsidies (combined with the absence of a carbon price) were not sufficient to make this happen (a decade after Bush launched the program, there are only a handful of starters, and most of the early proposals have been abandoned).
The second was political – for a substantial group (mostly on the political right), the desirability of nuclear power is an article of faith, and their (outdated) view that environmentalists resolutely oppose it forms part of the reason for adopting anti-science views and do-nothing policy positions on climate change. More funding for attempts to develop the nuclear option might convert some of them, and embarrass some others into dropping this particular talking point.
But after the disaster in Japan, and the failure of cooling systems at nuclear plants there, it’s most unlikely that anything along these lines will happen.
We have yet to see how bad the outcome will be, but it’s already apparent that two plants have suffered partial meltdowns or something close enough that they will never operate again. As cooling systems continue to fail, more are being affected. It’s likely, based on past experience, that plants in the same complex will be offline for a long period. So, even in the best case, the economic effects will be severe. The worst case could be disastrous.
The economics of building a new nuclear plant in the developed world were marginal at best before this disaster. The political climate was much more favorable than it had been, but still fragile. In the best possible case, the response to the failures will involve new, and expensive safety equipment, and more restrictions on the location of new plants. But that will almost certainly be enough to stop any new projects, and maybe even the handful (two sites in the US, and one in Finland) currently under way in developed countries other than Japan.
In Japan itself, political support for nuclear power has been fairly solid until now, but construction of new plants was already slowing down. In the wake of the disaster, it seems likely (if only because of the need for diversification) that the replacements for the plants destroyed or taken off-line will be non-nuclear, probably either gas-fired or renewable.
That leaves China (and perhaps India) as the only real hope for large-scale construction of new nuclear plants. It remains to be seen how that will play out.
Having said all that, the risks from the nuclear plants are insignificant when compared to the catastrophic loss of life and economic destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami. It’s hard to know what can be done in the face of such destructive force, other than to help the survivors as best we can.