Some Thoughts on Climate Change, Nuclear Energy and Risk

The scale of the tragedy in Japan is still unfolding. As search and rescue continues for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami, the potential of another catastrophe looms.

Over the last few days, Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor has become unstable, with the potential of at least a partial meltdown distinctly possible. In the past year, nuclear power has been touted as a climate change solution here in the US. The government has issued new permits for the first time in decades. Now might be an important moment to pause and rethink that, though, or at least weigh the benefits of mitigating climate change versus the risk of a nuclear accident.

The issues at Japan’s nuclear plants are being widely covered. Some of the best coverage is over at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) blog, which explains the science of a nuclear meltdown and provides timely updates about what’s going on in Japan.

One of the more interesting posts over there links to an op-ed by Dave Lochbaum, Director of the Nuclear Safety Project. The piece is called “Disasters Don’t Follow Scripts.”

Think about that for a minute. It holds quite a bit of truth. Look at the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year. It resulted in the failure of a failsafe device. In Haiti, after the earthquake razed most of Port-au-Prince, cholera outbreaks further exacerbated the situation. And in the case of the emergency in Japan, back up systems were wiped out by multiple disasters.

In other words, there is no such thing as a failsafe plan, no such thing as a disaster script. In the case of nuclear power, the probability of an event is low while the risk is high.

There’s another low probability, high-risk emergency that makes this debate even more important. That’s catastrophic climate change.

One of the solutions to avert catastrophic climate change is nuclear power. But is it worth it to combat one low probability, high-risk issue with another? According to a prescient report put out by UCS in February 2011, the answer is no.

For starters, nuclear power is heavily subsidized so the actual costs of production are not realized. The UCS report states that “subsidies to new nuclear reactors could exceed the value of the power produced 70 to 200 percent.”

More worrisome are the costs after power production ceases. Though nuclear power plays a smaller role in energy production in the US than other countries like Japan and France, it still produces the lion's share of nuclear energy globally and thus, nuclear waste. Storing that waste isn't cheap. The cost to store spent fuel over the life of the Nuclear Fuel Repository at Yucca Mountain is reported to be $100 billion. So far, the nuclear industry has only ponied up $31 billion.

Even if the full $100 billion is finally found, studies have shown the likelihood of Yucca Mountain containing nuclear waste for 10,000 years, the projected time for it to become inert, is near zero. In other words, this translates to a high risk, high probability problem.

So does nuclear power make sense given the potential and real risks of both nuclear energy and climate change? The classic adage “today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems” might apply.

While other sources of renewable energy have their detractors such as habitat loss in the case of solar, they don't come with nearly the same risk as nuclear power. It might be time to rewrite the nuclear part of our climate change script.

Photo credit: kmichiels/flickr