What’s the Cost of Shifting Away from Nuclear Power?

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The news from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan just keeps getting worse. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that at least a “partial meltdown” seemed to be happening, and today the U.S. government advised its citizens to stay at least 50 miles away from the Fukushima plant. The worst-case scenario—a release of a large amount of radiation across a wide geographic area—could still be avoided, but there’s little evidence that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) or the Japanese government are up to the challenge. The head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission told a Congressional hearing today that he believed that the spent fuel rods in reactor number 4 were likely fully exposed—and though he was later contradicted by Japanese authorities, data from the International Atomic Energy Agency indicates that something is going very wrong at number 4. The one strand of hope left is the possibility that a power cable to the plant could be repaired soon, which might allow pumps to supply a steady steam of water to the reactor cores and spent fuel pods, both of which are running dangerously dry.

But even if TEPCO is able to pull of a last-minute miracle, averting a full-scale meltdown and a dangerous release of radiation, Fukushima will still rank as the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl—a fact that will weigh on the global nuclear industry. After experiencing a renaissance in recent years, if not so much in the U.S.—worldwide 220 reactors are being built or planned, with more on the drawing board—the nuclear industry won’t emerge unscathed from Fukushima. Already governments around the world have begun to slow down new nuclear plant construction and increase safety checks on existing reactors.

Germany—where a large portion of the population was already hostile to nuclear power—has gone the furthest. Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that a three-month moratorium on the government’s plan to extend the lifespan of German nuclear plants, and she just decided to shut down seven of the country’s oldest reactors, with at least three of them set to remain offline permanently. China—the world’s leader on new nuclear construction—has announced that it would suspend new nuclear plant approvals until it could strengthen safety standards. In the U.S.—where a new nuclear plant hasn’t begun construction since Three Mile Island in 1979—the Fukushima accident certainly won’t help the efforts of politicians on both sides of the aisle to renew nuclear’s role the country’s electricity supply.

We can debate the wisdom of slowing down nuclear on the basis of the Fukushima disaster later, but it’s worth examining just what it would mean if we saw nuclear’s share of the global electricity supply shrink. For Germany—where nuclear provides 26% of the country’s electricity—energy companies could stand to lose more than $800 million as a result of just a three-month showdown, as one energy expert told Der Spiegel. By the same calculations, taking those plants offline could raise electricity prices 10% or more.

That’s just the business side. Analysts expect Germany’s mothballed nuclear plants—which produced virtually no carbon emissions—to be largely replaced by coal. Matteo Mazzoni, a carbon analyst at Italy’s Nomisma Energia, estimates that the policy could mean an additional 8 to 11 million metric tons of carbon emissions over the coming months. If Germany were to go further and shut down all of its existing nuclear reactors—assuming they were replaced with fossil fuels—carbon emissions could rise by as much as 435 million metric tons between now and 2020. For China, which is looking to atomic power to provide electricity without the carbon and air pollution of coal, removing nuclear power from the equation could wreck both the country’s air and the world’s climate.

Whatever the safety concerns, it seems unlikely that Fukushima would lead to the U.S. following Germany’s model and actually mothballing existing plants—the influence of the nuclear industry makes that certain. While Senate Democrats have called for a systematic review of U.S. nuclear reactors, Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a Congressional hearing that the President still supported new atomic plants, with a White House budget calls for $36 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors. America has 104 nuclear reactors, and they’re not going anywhere for the time being.

But another thought experiment: what if the U.S did decide to replace all nuclear generation? According to rough calculations from Josh Freed of Third Way—a centrist Democratic think tank—replacing all nuclear generation with coal would add 790 million metric tons to the atmosphere, enough to increase the U.S. carbon footprint by 14%. Even if cleaner burning natural gas replaced nuclear in the U.S., carbon emissions would rise by 330 million metric tons. For better or for worse, nuclear has usually played an important role in plans to reduce the U.S. carbon footprint—one report from the Keystone Center estimated that the world would need to build 20 to 40 reactors a year over the next 50 years to help meet climate goals, plus the equivalent of 10 Yucca Mountains a year to store the waste.

There’s renewable power, of course, but it would need to be scaled up to an almost unimaginable degree to replace both fossil fuel generation and nuclear power. As Bradford Plumer writes in the New Republic, it’s not impossible, but it’s not easy either:

Late last year, two engineering professors, Mark Jacobson of Stanford and Mark Delucchi of University of California Davis, published two papers in Energy Policy offering their own detailed analysis of how the world could get 100 percent of its electricity from existing renewables—mostly solar and wind—by 2050. The task would be staggering. We would need nearly four million five-megawatt wind turbines—i.e., turbines twice as big as those currently on the market. (China just built its first five-megawatter last year.) Plus 90,000 large-scale solar farms—for reference, there are only about three dozen in existence now. Plus 1.7 billion three-kilowatt rooftop solar systems—that is, one for every four people on the planet. But it’s doable. The main challenge, the authors found, would be mining enough rare-earth metals—like neodymium—for all those electric motors. So, again, mind-blowingly hard, but it’s at least possible to go carbon-free without nuclear (or algae). What’s more, the world wouldn’t have to pay that much more for energy than it does today.

Plans to remake the world’s energy system will have to wait for now, as we watch an unprecedented drama unfold in Japan. If we do see nuclear power decline, the most likely replacement in the short term won’t be millions of wind turbines or vast solar arrays, but lots and lots of natural gas.Vast new shale gas deposits in the U.S. and other countries, plus the possibility of liquified natural gas from places like Australia means that natural gas is ready to step up as a steady source of electricity—even if it comes with its own environmental uncertainties. As Steve LeVine writes at Foreign Policy:

This is the calculus you arrive at when you twin the above set of observations with the super-glut of natural gas around the world — shale gas from the United States, plus liquefied natural gas from Qatar, Australia, and elsewhere. You get a supply-driven demand response. China is already projected to use much more gas in coming years — depending on the forecast, from six to ten times its current consumption — but these unaccounted-for realities on the ground mean it will lap up the gas at an even higher rate

Ultimately, though, the fate of nuclear power should wait until all the facts from are out from this disaster—which might be a very long time. But there’s no doubt that the memory of Fukushima will weigh heavily the next time a country debates over building an atomic plant.