America’s Nuclear Power after Fukushima
August 23, 2011
Five months after the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear plant, just one-third of Japan’s nuclear reactors are operating amid serious questions about the future of nuclear energy in the country. While he appears somewhat isolated politically, outgoing Prime Minister Naoto Kan has gone so far as to suspend international negotiations with foreign governments interested in Japan’s nuclear technology. Meanwhile, Germany has decided to shut down its nuclear plants by 2022, ending nuclear energy’s role in Europe’s largest economy. Despite this momentum shifting against nuclear power in many developed nations, recent developments suggest that the United States—with its own on-again, off-again relationship with nuclear energy—continues cautious moves to build new generating capacity.
On August 18, the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned utility, decided to complete the construction of an Alabama nuclear plant originally begun in 1974 and halted in 1988. Completing the project would be less expensive than installing soon-to-be mandatory air-cleaning technology at the utility’s coal-fired power plants, the Board determined. While the Bellefonte plant is not expected to enter operation for nearly a decade, TVA’s Watts Bar plant will finish a new unit next year.
Like in Japan and Germany, the Fukushima nuclear accident clearly provoked new concerns and questions about nuclear power in America. Immediately afterward, a CBS News survey showed that 44% of Americans were more fearful about a nuclear disaster in the United States. The number of Americans who supported building new nuclear plants fell from 57% in 2008 to just 43% after the accident. Not surprisingly, even many of those who favored new plants did not want to see them in their own communities.
Still, unlike in Germany, an overwhelming majority of Americans want existing nuclear power plants to keep running. In a CNN poll, just 10% said they wanted all nuclear plants permanently shut down. Why have Americans not reacted more strongly to events in Japan?
There are three likely reasons. First, and perhaps most important, America’s last serious nuclear accident, the Three Mile Island incident, was much less serious than the Fukushima accident and took place over 30 years ago. Three Mile Island was deeply disturbing—and has constrained the construction of new nuclear plants for decades—but at the same time, the US nuclear industry has operated without serious lapses since the 1979 accident. As a result, Americans recognize that notwithstanding its real risks, nuclear power generation can be managed safely. From this perspective, Three Mile Island was an isolated incident and a powerful warning, but no more.
In this context, Americans seem ready to view Japan’s accident as an isolated incident as well—the crisis followed a historic natural disaster unlikely to be repeated here or elsewhere. This reflects the fact that US news coverage of the accident focused heavily on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in the days and weeks after March 11 but did not examine questions about the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s operation of the plant or the Japanese government’s oversight in any depth. In America, those issues have received little attention outside the community of specialists and activists—unlike in Japan, where they have contributed to wider concern. The Barack Obama administration also deflected some of this anxiety by moving proactively to reassure Americans and to launch short-term and long-term reviews of US nuclear safety by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC released its initial findings in July.
Finally, like in Japan and Germany, nuclear power in America has enjoyed the support of both long-time advocates and new groups attracted to its low greenhouse gas emissions. This coalition eventually collapsed in Germany—where an alternative coalition was able to deliver substantial government subsidies to other low-carbon renewables, especially solar and wind—and appears to have been damaged in Japan. Because most Americans see Three Mile Island and Fukushima as isolated and unconnected, the loose collection of US groups supporting nuclear power has not faced similar pressures. In comparison to their colleagues in Japan in particular, US supporters of nuclear power have been helped by having a much less ambitious agenda focused on maintaining rather than dramatically expanding the share of nuclear energy in overall electricity generation.
The longer-term future of nuclear power in America remains uncertain, with the Department of Energy predicting an increase in generation but a decrease in the nuclear component of US electric power from 20% to 17% by 2035. At the same time, US utilities and investors still view nuclear power cautiously due to public concern and questions about the stability of government regulations and incentives over the life-spans of nuclear reactors. But so long as America’s 104 nuclear power plants continue to operate safely, the future of US nuclear energy seems secure.