Should Hydropower Replace Nuclear Power, Post-Japan?

hydropower

The ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan has some green energy advocates wringing their hands: without nuclear energy, countries may simply rely more on dirty coal and non-renewable natural gas in lieu of their suddenly scary nuclear reactors. But there could be another solution in hydropower, which, unlike other renewable sources, is advanced enough to generate sizable amounts of electricity quickly. Hydropower is already responsible for nearly 10% of all the electricity generated in the U.S., and much more in the dam-heavy Northwest.

So it makes sense that 10 U.S. senators (including many from the Northwest) proposed the Hydropower Improvement Act of 2011, a bill that aims to grow the country's hydropower infrastructure with grants and sped-up site approval. But is this really the way to phase out nuclear power?

In its most basic form, hydropower is driven by the force of moving water spinning a turbine, generally using hydroelectric dams. It's simple, clean (though damaging to river ecosystems), and like nuclear, it's more reliable than intermittent sources like wind and solar. The only major problems are cost and safety (sound familiar?).

As the New York Times explained in a recent piece, more than 4,400 of the country's 85,000 dams are at risk of failure due to lack of maintenance. One particularly vulnerable dam in Lake Isabella, California is in danger of eroding and triggering a giant flood that could drown nearby Bakersfield (population: 340,000) under 30 feet of water. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that fixing safety-related problems in all of the nation's dams could cost $20 billion.

The question is, then, whether growing the nation's hydropower capabilities will just create more safety problems that will be left unaddressed until we see a repeat of the Johnstown Flood, and a group of senators introduces a bill to support solar power. This may turn out to be a moot point--a similar hydropower act already failed in the Senate last year.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.

Read more coverage of the Japan earthquake.

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