Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Future of Nuclear Power:

Riot versus Reason

I must confess that some of the recent news from the nuclear world has me conflicted, as they seem to pit my belief in democracy against my belief in the importance of reliable energy supplies for today's economies.

The German public didn't want nuclear power, so German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had previously supported increasing the use of nuclear power, did a sudden U-turn and promised a phaseout.  The Japanese are, quite understandably, concerned about the safety of nuclear power in Japan, and officials from the Prime Minister on down seem to be near paralysis in addressing the issue of the future of nuclear power in Japan.

These countries are democracies.  If the will of the public is to close nuclear power plants, they should be closed, we have been told.

Now, conceptually, I'm all for having politicians heed the will of the public.  However, there is a BIG difference between leading and following.  Today's politicians seem to have lost sight of that fact.  There is a BIG difference between doing what is really right and doing what is necessary to stay in office.  Today's politicians seem to have forgotten that distinction.

What has happened to the idea of statesmanship?  Of "profiles in courage"?

It seems to me that leadership carries with it the responsibility to make decisions that are sometimes unpopular.  In a democracy, that means that a leader must also be a teacher.  He or she must explain and justify the reasons for a decision.  They must be solid reasons.  They must stand up to counterarguments. 

The latter is not always easy.  In the case of energy supply, there are those who insist that we can replace coal and nuclear power with solar and wind power, quickly, reliably, economically, and with no environmental impacts.  It is not difficult to understand why people want to believe that, and might not be eager to analyze the claims too closely.  After all, wouldn't we all like perfect solutions to all our needs?

It is precisely because the assertions seem so seductive that it takes hard work to counter them.  Unsupported assumptions must be exposed.  Facts refuting them must be expressed in terms that the general public can understand.  It takes effort to explain what the impediments are to any quick transitions--and what the implications are for slower transitions.  It takes time to get the public to understand that all systems have environmental impacts--and to try to compare very different impacts.  It takes patience to make it clear that there are serious consequences to intermittency--and to convey an understanding of what that will mean to individuals and to industries.  

But the failure to educate the public leads directly to the situation we are seeing now in Germany, and to the direction in which Japan seems to be going.  When Germany's phaseout plan was announced, many experts pointed to the enormous obstacles ahead--the need for storage or fossil-fueled backup power for solar and wind installations, the need for grid enhancements to move the electricity from the windy regions to the industrial regions, etc.  Not a problem, the solar and wind proponents assured the public.  The will of the public, the Germany politicians said.

Now, we are seeing the predicted costs and difficulties of Germany's energy transition beginning to emerge.  This outcome was predictable, but it was not fully explained to the German public.  The resulting burning of lignite, of course, has ramifications beyond the borders of Germany, so should be a concern to us all.  Now, we are assured that Germany will catch up and will meet its carbon reduction goals anyway.  No one explains just how that will happen.  And the German politicians are remaining silent.

In Japan, we see the threat of a near-repeat of the same scenario.  It truly seems that Prime Minister Noda knows in his heart that keeping the nation's nuclear power plants shuttered is bad for the country.  He has supported the restart of two units, despite considerable opposition.  He has fought against promising an early exit from nuclear power.  Yet, the pace of restarts is glacially slow, the promised creation of an independent regulator has been delayed, and the pressures against nuclear power are growing

The outcome of failing to restart Japan's nuclear power plants is clear--more fossil fuels will be burned in a country that already has serious air pollution problems in some areas; the economy will be severely affected as industries fold or jobs are moved offshore; the health of the elderly and infirm will be affected by living without sufficient heat or air-conditioning.  But these are slow and incremental effects, and the public is largely in denial, so is swallowing specious arguments that Japan is managing and can continue to manage seamlessly, or maybe will minor inconveniences, without its nuclear power plants. 

So, yes, the will of the people is important.  But the first step in a democratic process is education.  The will of the public must be informed by the cold, hard facts.  I believe if people understand the true costs of giving up nuclear power--in terms of their individual and national well-being--we might see a very different dialogue than we are now seeing in some countries.



  1. you do seem to ignore the cold,hard facts about the real costs of nuclear power and difference of real democracy and american style pseudo democracy.

    j.l. tokyo

  2. If the people want cleaner energy then their elected representatives who serve them (not the energy conglomerates) are beholden to make it happen, there can be no clearer indication of the will of the nation. The cost of renewables is plummeting and many more innovations are underway than in the nuclear industry which may be useful at present in producing the energy we require but can hardly be argued to be of benefit to the Japanese standard of living and health after the biggest radioactive contamination event in history. The suffering caused already and the continued suffering to come from birth defects, cancers, ecological decline can hardly be compared to the problems of making it through a hot day with no air conditioning. You are comparing apples and oranges again...