Pity President Obama: Every time he tries to compromise with Republicans on energy reform by backing dirty or dangerous forms of power generation, a disaster occurs to demonstrate why pursuing such strategies is a bad idea. It happened a year ago when a BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico after Obama had been talking up the advantages of expanded offshore drilling, and it’s happening again this week with the nuclear crisis following Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami. A year ago, Obama called the construction of new nuclear plants in the United States a “necessity,” but the political fallout from the Japanese disaster now renders it unlikely.
That’s not a bad thing, at least for now; sometimes disasters lead to wisdom.
We take the threat of climate change very seriously, and would be delighted if a safe, cost-effective way of producing carbon-emissions-free nuclear power were developed. Sadly, we’re not there yet. Nuclear power plants are so expensive, and their risks so extreme, that private investors are reluctant to fund them even with huge government subsidies and loan guarantees. Plans to build a national repository for nuclear waste in Nevada have been shelved, meaning radioactive waste is being stockpiled at individual plants in a way that is unsustainable. And then there’s the threat of a Japan-type disaster.
California has two nuclear power plants, Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo and San Onofre in San Diego County. Like all U.S. and Japanese nuclear plants, they’re built to withstand the largest earthquake considered likely in their regions, based on fault analyses. Of course, the analyses could be wrong ― neither is designed to withstand an earthquake anywhere nearly as strong as the one that struck Japan last week. But the cost of building them to such exacting standards is viewed as prohibitive. An earthquake that big would be expected to kill far more people than a nuclear meltdown, so it’s considered wiser to spend the money on community preparedness rather than plant safety. Even wiser would be not having nuclear plants in seismically active states like California at all.
The U.S. gets 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants, and many are nearing the end of their useful lives, so limited construction of new plants in inland states where the risk of natural disaster is low might be acceptable ― at least if Washington ever gets a handle on the waste-storage problem. But there are more cost-effective ways of weaning the country off climate-warming fossil fuels, namely improved energy efficiency and more renewable power. In the cost-benefit analysis, nuclear doesn’t add up.