What's that mean, not likely to change? Well, it means there's no nuclear renaissance in this country. We were unlikely to accept a lot of nuclear reactor construction before Fukushima, and nothing unfolding in Japan right now is likely to change that. Still, some folks in Congress like the idea of "clean energy" and figure the spent fuel issue can be kicked down the road, so the debate won't disappear. As if the nuclear lobby would let it.
Let's look at some recent analysis and throw in two recent polls for good measure.
From the Atlantic, we have this observation from the Breakthrough Institute, described as an energy think tank:
Yet lost in the hyperbolic claims of nuclear opponents, the defensive reactions of the nuclear industry, and the carefully calibrated repositioning of politicians and policymakers is the reality that Fukushima is unlikely to much change the basic political economy of nuclear power. Wealthy, developed economies, with relatively flat energy growth and mature energy infrastructure haven't built a lot of nuclear in decades and were unlikely to build much more anytime soon, even before the Fukushima accident. The nuclear renaissance, such as it is, has been occurring in the developing world, where fast growing, modernizing economies need as much new energy generation as possible and where China and India alone have constructed dozens of new plants, with many more on the drawing board.The authors acknowledge upfront that the massive economic disruption ($300 billion to rebuild) and the loss of life (upwards of 21K) were due to the tsunami, not the nuclear accident. And their observation about the third world is borne out in this NY Times headline today:
Absent Fukushima, developed world economies were not going to build much new nuclear power anytime soon. The deliberations in Germany have involved whether to retire old plants or extend their lifetimes, not whether to build new plants. The decade long effort to restart the U.S. nuclear industry may result in the construction of, at most, two new plants over the next decade.
Panic May Slow Nuclear Energy in ChinaSeems like everyone is coming to the same conclusion. This is from National Journal (same publisher as the Atlantic):
Nuclear fear has struck in China, a country of 1.3 billion with the world’s most ambitious nuclear power plans, in response to the unfolding crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.
Five Reasons Why Japan’s Nuclear Disaster Won’t Change America’s Nuclear IndustrySo what do the people say? we have two recent polls, from CBS and Pew, to answer that.
- It didn’t happen here
- Upfront capital costs are sky-high
- Natural gas prices are low
- Obama and the leaders in Congress like nuclear power
- Nuclear waste remains a huge unanswered question
If you check the graphic at the top from CBS, you'll see that current events like Chernobyl (1986) have had a profound effect. 69% of the public approved of more reactors in 1977 in the Jimmy (nuclear engineer) Carter years, 34% by 1986. Public opinion was up again in 2008 to 57%, and now down to 43%.
And those who are okay with it seem to want it built elsewhere. That's reminiscent of Yucca Mountain where in a 2002 Mason-Dixon poll for the Las Vegas Review Journal, 83% of Nevadans opposed supporting the decision to use Yucca mountain as a nuclear waste depository. From the current CBS poll:
More than two in three Americans do say U.S. nuclear plants are generally safe, while just 22 percent say they are not safe. And 47 percent say the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the risks, compared to 38 percent who say they do not.Pew has similar overall results:
But Americans are clearly concerned about those risks. Sixty-five percent say they are at least somewhat concerned about a nuclear accident in the United States, including 31 percent who are very concerned. And 62 percent say they would oppose the construction of a nuclear plant in their community, compared to 35 percent who would support a new plant in their community.
Asked if the government is prepared for a nuclear accident, just 35 percent ofAmericans say yes. Fifty-eight percent say the government is not prepared.
Not surprisingly, public support for the increased use of nuclear power has declined amid the ongoing nuclear emergency in Japan. Currently, 39% say they favor promoting the increased use of nuclear power while 52% are opposed. Last October, 47% favored promoting the increased use of nuclear power and the same percentage (47%) was opposed.And that Pew poll also has a great example of how current events play on people's opinion. Check out this graphic about offshore drilling. Did something happen in the Gulf last year? I wonder if this is a result of No Child Left Behind, but memories are awfully short these days.
Opinion about expanding the use of nuclear power has fluctuated in recent years. However, the current measure matches a previous low in support for increased nuclear power recorded in September 2005 (39% favor, 53% oppose).
In any case, nuclear power remains in the mix but is a hard sell to the public. The economics haven't changed much after Fukushima, there'll be the (appropriate) reviews of current reactors (Indian Point is still built on a fault line, even after that review), and there'll be a lot of political posturing. But is anything really going to change?