In the Japanese nuclear crisis resulting from the massive earthquake and tsunami to hit that nation, things just seem to go from bad to far worse. The failing cooling systems, hydrogen explosions, and leaking radiation from Fukushima are headed down an uncertain path and whether this path leads eventually to a meltdown or a controlled cooling of the reactors isn't yet clear. What is clear though is that governments and people around the globe are reevaluating their nuclear energy programs. Some will decide to move forward with nuclear power while others will not, but it seems likely that alternative forms of energy will receive fresh attention as well, and that seems like a very good idea.
For decades after the Three Mile Island incident no new plants were built in the U.S., but the industry has enjoyed something of a resurgence recently, with numerous plants in the works. European nations have already commented that they are reviewing or putting on hold nuclear plans, and its hard to see how there won't be a strong chilling on the U.S. nuclear industry as well.
While technology has improved over the decades, the current crisis demonstrates all too clearly that nuclear technology isn't perfect and cannot protect against every eventuality. Some have said that their reactors are not exposed to seismic hazards, and others have tried to assuage concerns by saying that their reactors use a different design that the stricken Japanese reactors, but this misses the point. The question isn't about a particular reactor design or a particular hazard, but whether any reactor design can really provide the level of protection we expect and need.
One response would be a renewed emphasis on coal. Coal power looks cheap, but the apparently low price of coal power has always been deceptive, ignoring the health and environmental costs of burning massive amounts of coal for energy. Coal remains dangerous and polluting to mine, and poses its own grave risk of climate change in the years and decades ahead. We need better energy options.
Oil plays little role in producing electricity, but using oil for transportation proved its cost in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill last summer, and in rising gas prices resulting from unrest sweeping through the Middle East. We need cleaner energy alternatives for transportation as well like electric vehicles and increased efficiency.
One path is to increase development of renewable energy, including wind energy, geothermal and solar power. It's often said that wind and solar are not ready for the massive scale deployment that the world needs to meet its growing energy needs. It is true that despite rapid growth for many years wind and solar energy still only produce a small fraction of energy worldwide. For those who hold up the French example of what nuclear power can achieve though, you can also look to Denmark for what wind power can achieve. For major energy consumers like the U.S., and China it would be a huge challenge to ramp up production of wind and solar to pick up the slack, but vastly increased production of renewable energy can be achieved. Rapid innovation in renewable energy and ramped up production are continuing to drive costs down and open up doors to new possibilities. These technologies are not pie in the sky dreams, but solid alternatives that we will need in our energy mix. And say what you will about wind or solar, they don't fail in catastrophic ways that harm large numbers of people or the environment. If I had to choose today between having a nuclear power plant, a coal-fired power plant, or a wind farm next door, I'd choose the wind farm, hands down.
Energy efficiency is another opportunity with vast unrealized potential, and probably one of the cheapest. Every year we waste billions of dollars on energy that is wasted, and the cost of energy regained through energy efficiency measures is often far less than the cost of building new power plants. Green entrepreneurs across the country are working on technologies large and small that will help to make our energy needs lean and green, such as an innovative new air cooling technology that can cool our homes for less energy and less money.
Very recently I saw pictures taken from the Chernobyl area in the abandoned city of Pripyat, now open to tourists for brief visits. Trees grow up through the roads and the abandoned amusement park sits corroding, slowing breaking apart. It's an eerie sight, and one I hope we don't have to repeat too many times. Whatever happens in the current crisis, it will eventually pass. I hope moving forward though we choose the path of a safe energy policy that works for the people and environment on the planet we all share.