by Chip Pitts
The Fukushima nuclear disaster gives rise to many consequences, for the people and country of Japan, but also globally: consequences for the nuclear power industry, for energy more broadly, and for our ability to effectively address the challenge of climate change. Politics will play at least as large a role as pragmatics.
My observation of prior corporate disasters suggests that the immediate pronouncements (e.g. nuclear power is dead) may be overstated. We’re still drilling offshore after last year’s BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, for example. And climate change realities, barring some amazing new technological discovery, could mean that nuclear power remains a necessary part of the mix despite these resurgent safety concerns and the high cost. Solar, by contrast, requires more land and at least currently seems to hold less promise for efficiently meeting the rapidly growing global energy demand.
The possibility of fuel rods igniting, newly raised by the incident in Japan, has elevated the risk profile of nuclear power in the minds of many experts. The NYT and other media outlets are linking nuclear safety risks from acts of terrorism to the recent reminders of vulnerability from natural disasters. Waste disposal remains an issue. Although France and other countries using nuclear to a larger degree than the US have managed to handle spent fuel using a variety of storage approaches, the perceptions and the political dimensions of safety and waste disposal issues may be more significant than the substantive concerns in terms of whether and to what extent nuclear power proceeds.
In the short term and medium term, natural gas looks relatively better to most decision makers (since it’s cheaper and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future), despite being a finite resource subject to its own environmental and other risks. The delay in climate change legislation only makes this more the case. Japan will likely turn to natural gas to make up gaps in electricity generation. At least natural gas involves lower emissions than coal. US policymakers have more flexibility than, say, French policymakers on this score (given the 80% dependency of France on nuclear energy at present). They will thus find natural gas persistently attractive given the recent discovered US supplies – despite residual concerns over hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).
The rest of the world is reviewing pending nuclear plant projects and viewing the industry more skeptically, but it is frankly hard to see how large nations like China can conceivably meet their burgeoning demand for energy without relying in substantial part on nuclear. The pragmatic truth is that not just China but all of the developing world needs lots more energy. Even with substantial gains in efficiency, a full tilt deployment of wind and solar wherever financially and politically feasible, and rapid increases in the use of natural gas, a large gap is likely to remain. That gap will be filled either by nuclear energy or by coal.
Of the two, coal is the more dangerous: more climate impact, more habitat destruction, more pollution, and many more industry deaths. If we can avoid Chernobyl-scale accidents, radiation exposure from nuclear energy is surprisingly negligible from a social standpoint (though perhaps not to individual victims, of course). A recent chart by Randall Munroe shows just how negligible, even in the case of accidents like Three Mile Island and Fukushima.
The disaster in Japan does suggest corporate overconfidence and possibly even negligence, however. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) concerns would counsel greater due diligence and both human rights and environmental risk assessments in light of the Japanese disaster, as contemplated by the recent UN Framework on Business and Human Rights and the UN Special Representative’s recently released draft Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Core CSR principles – including integrated decision-making, stakeholder engagement, transparency, consistent best practices, precautionary risk management, accountability, and community investment — all apply with great force to these issues of nuclear power. Integrated decision-making requires a look at environmental and social sustainability issues as well as economic issues. Stakeholder engagement is essential at all levels in order to proactively address the concerns of affected communities. This in turn depends on greater transparency on the part of governments as well as utility and energy companies, including regarding design parameters, resilience, and safety plans. Without such public processes, there’s little hope of restoring public trust and confidence and the reputation of nuclear power.
The latest best practices must be adopted and consistently adhered to, including construction and siting practices and safety improvement features such as having reactors widely separated on site and stronger containment vessels, as well as new approaches such as modular nuclear that are accompanied by equal or greater attention to safety. In some cases, decisions to site plants over existing fault lines, for example, should be reconsidered. Passive cooling (where systems don’t need external power to function) provides an additional margin of safety in the latest generation of nuclear power plants. Aging reactors may need to be completely replaced instead of being repaired. Disaster response plans should be reviewed to take into account lessons from Japan.
These issues should be considered now, instead of waiting for decades after the initial operation period until relicensing is considered. Sensible application of a reasonable version of the precautionary principle and effective risk management is now more needed than ever – not such a strong version that all progress would be halted, but a more cautious assessment and modifications of current approaches to nuclear power.
Society also deserves a look at accountability mechanisms, given what’s happened in Japan. As with the pre-BP oil drilling laws, the nuclear industry globally operates under capped liability for impacts caused by the reactors. New approaches that take into account compensating victims for damages are overdue. Regulators should also review the relevant planning zones (ten miles in the US).
None of the above, however, suggests that we should stop using nuclear energy. The petroleum and coal industries have been guilty of much greater negligence regarding safety and environmental damage, and even willful and systemic violation of human rights in numerous cases. The Japanese disaster certainly places new imperatives on confirming that public concerns about this source of energy be addressed and not dismissed. Rather than ban nuclear power or completely stop technological refinement, however, the incident in Japan should prompt renewed investment in safer and even more reliable and cost-effective nuclear power.
Chip Pitts teaches corporate social responsibility and sustainable development at Stanford Law School and Oxford University.