The ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan has caused considerable concern among Wall Street types, many of whom had already voted with their wallets against the financial feasibility of nuclear power by refusing to invest in new plants. PricewaterhouseCoopers, for instance, issued a report in late March that said, "Whatever their exact outcome, the Fukushima events are likely to shift the energy policy balance toward renewables."
Governments around the world acted quickly in the wake of the disaster. Germany announced this week that it would phase out its nuclear power plants by 2022, Switzerland has taken steps to mothball older reactors, and many countries are putting a hold on approving new or relicensing currently operating plants. China's National Energy Administration promised to beef up safety standards at its nuclear facilities, and is considering doubling its target capacity of solar photovoltaics to meet future energy needs.
A seemingly out-of-control nuclear crisis, like the gallows, tends to focus the mind. But a turn toward renewables started long before the Japan crisis tragically reminded the world of the dangers of nuclear power. According to the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, investment in clean energy in the G20 nations rose 33 percent last year to $198 billion, not even counting R&D money.
For some observers, though, the energy quandary presents a Sophie's Choice: On the one hand, with nuclear power we run the risk of the kind of widespread radiation hazard, and the dread that comes with it, that we've seen in Japan -- with the potential of even more catastrophic, Chernobyl-level disasters. But the other option, according to this line of thinking, is even worse: an unlivable planet, due to global warming caused by fossil fuel use.
Fortunately, those aren't our only choices -- despite nuclear industry claims.
Nuclear power is actually one of the most expensive low-carbon alternatives to coal. Amory Lovins, chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado, argues that it's not only possible to meet carbon reduction targets without nuclear power, we could do so more effectively and more cheaply. "[I]f you spent the same money on efficiency, renewables, and combined heat and power [cogeneration], you would reduce the carbon emissions by about two to 10 times more and about 20 to 40 times faster," Lovins explained in a March interview. Nuclear "is such a slow and costly climate solution, it actually reduces and retards climate protection, compared with a 'best buys first' approach."
Such savings, Lovins explained in a paper he coauthored in 2008, are available right now. "Wind, cogeneration, and end-use efficiency already provide electrical services more cheaply than central thermal power plants, whether nuclear or fossil-fueled," he wrote. "This cost gap will only widen, since central thermal power plants are largely mature and getting costlier, while their competitors continue to improve rapidly." In fact, "New nuclear power is so costly that shifting a dollar of spending from nuclear to efficiency protects the climate severalfold more than shifting a dollar of spending from coal to nuclear."
Despite the advantages of renewable energy, the transition away from nuclear power won't be an easy one. The industry employs an army of lobbyists and spends huge amounts of money, as it seeks to rejuvenate a technology that, if the "free" market had its way, would die a natural death. Nuclear power has been propped up not only by massive government subsidies, but also by the Price-Anderson Act, which shifts much of the liability for accidents away from the industry itself -- right onto the backs of taxpayers. Also problematic is the fact that the agencies charged with regulating nuclear power also serve as its promoters. Foxes and henhouses come to mind.
Renewable energies, and initiatives aimed at energy efficiency and cogeneration, are by definition much more decentralized than mega-size thermal plants; the benefits will be decentralized as well. Vast corporations won't as easily be able to make enormous profits the way they do now, by selling energy produced at centralized facilities, and thus will fight the transition every step of the way. In energy production, "power to the people" is not only the solution, but the way to get there.