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  • 03.25.11

Was a Nuclear Renaissance Possible Before the Japan Disaster?

The Japan disaster stuck a fork in an already-cooked industry.

It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to see any new nuclear power plants built any time in the future, given the now worsening situation at Fukushima. But knee-jerk reactions to the accident are not what’s really to blame for the inevitable decline in nuclear production. Even before this month’s nuclear disaster in Japan, the economics of nuclear power were bleak. It didn’t seem that way on the surface–62% of the public supported nuclear energy according to a Gallup poll from last year, and Obama planned to dedicate $54.2 billion to building new nuclear plants (that plan is now in question). But according to at least one expert, the nuclear industry never had a chance.

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Mark Cooper, a senior fellow for economic analysis at Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment, discussed his findings about the economics of nuclear power
in a testimony this week before the Standing Committee on Natural Resources
in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Canada.

According to Cooper, the nuclear industry is at the tail end of a bubble: a “promotional frenzy” from 2001 to 2005, with Bush’s establishment of an $18.5 billion loan guarantee program; a surge in interest (measured by applications for loan guarantees and licenses) from 2006 to 2008; the realization that the industry couldn’t deliver on promotional cost estimates; and the collapse of the bubble due to economic forces in 2009 and 2010 (pushed along by low natural gas prices, declining demand, and cheaper costs for low-carbon alternatives, ultimately leading to reactor delays and cancellations). The Japan disaster simply stuck a fork in the already cooked industry.

After Fukushima, the costs of building new reactors will skyrocket. Cooper believes that this is because investors will view nuclear facilities as being difficult to finish and less attractive than alternatives (i.e. natural gas, coal, wind, solar). Nuclear will also be viewed as creating a significant risk for utilities.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission isn’t exactly inspiring confidence, either. David Lochbaum, a nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), said as much in a briefing this week:

The NRC’s
reactor oversight process is better than the–well, let me step back, the NRC adopted its
reactor oversight process that it currently uses
ten years ago, in the year 2000. It’s much
better than the process that it used before
then…So, I think things are better; however,
having said that, the new reactor oversight
process is not foolproof. In the year 2002, the
reactor oversight process gave the Davis-Besse
plant the highest marks possible, basically
straight As, even though it was then discovered
to have come closest to an accident since the
Three Mile Island accident in 1979. So, any
time a system can’t distinguish the best from
the worst, there’s still some work left to be
done on it.

This isn’t to say that the U.S. will never see a new nuclear plant. But all of the 104 operating plants in the U.S. began construction in 1974 or earlier. Three new plants are in the pipeline, but they have yet to be completed (ground has broken on just one, located in South Carolina).

And with hysteria over radioactive fallout from the Japan disaster reaching a fever pitch, it’s unlikely that public support will grow anytime soon. The hysteria is justified, at least in Japan. The UCS believes that radiation dosage rates in the evacuated areas around the plant will soon surpass the
threshold considered the
international standard for the maximum acceptable amount of
radiation in one year (100 millirem yearly). But anxiety in the U.S. is out of control, given our limited exposure. Don’t believe us? Take a look at the video below.

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

Read more coverage of the Japan earthquake.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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