The Japanese nuclear disaster has focused attention on global energy resources and nuclear power's role as a source of electricity.
Now is an opportune moment for Japan and the United States, in particular, to undertake a thorough re-examination of their current energy environments and to develop robust new energy policies to address both domestic and international energy use.
In Japan, a nation with minimal indigenous fossil fuel supplies, nuclear power generates about 35 percent of the nation's electricity, using 54 nuclear reactors. Japan ranks third behind the U.S. and France in the amount of electricity produced by nuclear energy. Currently, the U.S., the largest consumer of electricity, produces 20 percent of it from 104 reactors, while a fleet of 58 reactors in France provides 78 percent of the country's electricity.
Without question, events of the past weeks call for a re-examination of the role of nuclear power in the energy portfolios of these countries and all the nations currently using or planning to produce nuclear-generated electricity.
Analysts predict that the world's net electricity production will increase by an average of 2.3 percent per year from 2007 to 2035, with large increases in China and India driving this trend. In the U.S., the generation of electricity consumes 40 percent of the nation's total energy production. The sources for producing electricity in the U.S. are coal (48 percent), natural gas (18 percent), nuclear (22 percent) and renewables, including hydro, solar, wind, biomass (11 percent).
Nuclear power offers almost zero carbon emissions and, once plants become operational, relatively low costs for operation, maintenance and fuel. Before the Japanese disaster, the largest hurdle for nuclear power was the cost of building and financing plants. The estimated cost of a single reactor varies from $6 billion to $10 billion U.S. That means they must be financed by debt and equity. The lending and investment communities, already nervous about nuclear power, have become even more cautious since the Japanese crisis.
In 2005, the U.S. government provided minimal funds (about $6 billion) toward construction of the first new reactors and $38 billion in loan guarantees to assist companies in obtaining financing for new plants. This is in contrast to France and South Korea, whose governments have played a major role in financing the development of nuclear power in their respective countries.
As concerns about the safety of nuclear reactors and spent fuel storage emerge, several factors should be considered. It will be difficult for the countries generating substantial portions of their electricity from nuclear plants to close existing plants. Japan will likely reassess its goal of increasing nuclear-generated electricity to 50 percent. It will probably increase its dependence on imports of liquefied natural gas to produce electricity. In the U.S., the emphasis on reducing government spending and the reticence of the financial community to invest in new nuclear plants will slow any resurgence of nuclear power.
The Japanese disaster highlights the liabilities of nuclear power. But no energy source is problem-free. In the global environment, natural gas has become the oxycodone of energy, providing short-term relief of pain, while coal remains energy's heroin with a global community of addicts.
Given the current state of energy sources and the increasing demand for electricity, we must explore new energy policies that embrace all sources of energy, including nuclear power. This will require nations to examine and develop all the sources available to them with the goal of protecting the environment while supporting the activities of their citizens.
The demand and sources will vary from country to country, as will the degree of cooperation between the government and the private sector. In the United States, the development of a robust energy policy must receive a higher priority in the political agenda if we are to maintain a viable society, a strong economy and a habitable environment. This policy must include a levy of some kind on carbon emissions to encourage fossil fuel alternatives and for the long-term protection of the environment. Failure to address these energy challenges only makes them greater.