Japan crisis may have little effect on U.S. energy policy

Whatever the ultimate repercussions of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident in Japan (see Page 6), the crisis raises questions over the role nuclear power should play as an energy source. Michael Levi, head of the energy security and climate change program at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, spoke to reporters on March 14 about the accident’s potential implications for U.S. nuclear policy. Science News contributing editor Alexandra Witze excerpted his comments.

It’s important not to overstate the consequences of a particular event for U.S. policy until you really wait to see how all the details play out.

How will this event affect public opinion on nuclear power in the United States?
Most people will have their previous biases reconfirmed. The one place where I see a potential shift is in the group of environmental advocates who may have been willing in the past to compromise on nuclear energy as part of a broader deal on climate change, just like many of them were willing to do on offshore drilling. This sort of event will make them a lot less comfortable doing that.

Ultimately, the way this affects the future of U.S. nuclear power is through regulatory uncertainty and the sort of public opposition that ultimately drives up the cost of financing, and thus the cost, of nuclear power. But a warning I would give anyone trying to interpret this is that it is extremely early. If you go back and look at people’s conclusions on the consequences of last year’s oil spill for the future of energy policy a couple of days after the spill, you’ll find that most of them bear little resemblance to the reality that unfolded. And it’s worth having a similar level of caution right now.

How does this compare with last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill?
Again, people had their views confirmed. If you were antidrilling, you looked at it and you saw a horrible environmental disaster. If you were pro-drilling, you looked at it and you saw that there was still limited physical impact on the shores…. Less than a year after the Gulf disaster, we’re back to the same old debate over offshore drilling. So it’s important not to overstate the consequences of a particular event for U.S. policy until you really wait to see how all the details play out and how the context evolves.

What about the nuclear reactors currently applying for relicensing, or those located in earthquake-prone zones?
The particular contours of public opinion in areas with nuclear reactors vary enormously from site to site. In some places, like in Westchester, N.Y., people hate nuclear…. In other places, they see it as a source of employment.

Do you anticipate increased regulation?
It’s not like U.S. regulators don’t look at things like earthquake risk already. I’m sure people will be taking a careful look over their regulatory schemes and trying to understand exactly what the vulnerabilities are that they may not have understood previously, and if that leads to changes in how they regulate, then there will be changes. And regulators are constantly reassessing their understanding for a variety of different reasons.

The other thing that will come into play is there’s been a lot of discussion about how next-generation reactors are — the technical term is “passively cooled” — so that they can still cool themselves even if they have a complete power shutoff. This situation would certainly tilt things that way, but the lesson is not just that there’s a particular failure mode associated with earthquakes. It’s that things happen that you don’t predict when you have very complex systems, and you need to be prepared not only to prevent bad situations from happening but you need to be prepared to mitigate the consequences.

How important is nuclear to U.S. energy policy?

The nuclear component is hugely consequential for U.S. negotiations on energy policy. There is no question that when it comes to alternatives to fossil fuels, those on the right are far more enthusiastic about nuclear than about anything else. It’s also true that many of those on the left have become more open to nuclear as part of a package. And you saw, for example, the president in his State of the Union speech pushing for a clean electricity standard, rather than a renewable electricity standard — one of the two key differences being that it would include nuclear power under its remit. So certainly it’s a big piece of energy policy negotiations. Now, let’s not overplay this. Energy policy negotiations are not in great shape, period, so it’s not like nuclear will be decisive. Right now nothing big is happening, and this only makes things somewhat harder. But over the longer term, I find it very difficult to see a political compromise on clean energy — and on clean electricity in particular — that doesn’t say something serious for nuclear.