Last week, the influential weekly news and international affairs publication, The Economist, ran an essay on the future of nuclear energy – The dream that failed: Nuclear power will not go away, but its role may never be more than marginal.
As you might have guessed from the title, it was decidedly cool towards nuclear’s future prospects. Below I sketch some thoughts on what was wrong (and right) about the article. Interestingly, I understand that the author of this piece (Oliver Morton) will be joining us at the Breakthrough Dialogue in San Francisco in June 2012 — so I’m sure we’ll have some robust dinner conversations!
In his assessment of the current situation in Japan — 52 of its 54 reactors shuttered (at least 6 permanently), 100,000 people displaced by the evacuation resulting from the 20 km exclusion zone, and the speculation that Japan’s share of nuclear in the country’s electricity mix over the next few decades could decline rapidly or evaporate completely — the article is accurate and suitably sanguine.
The energy supply problems Japan now faces, due to the lack of baseload electricity for heavy industry and domestic consumption, is putting real pressure on the economy, and of course on the social fabric of the nation and the people’s respect for government.
As reported by The Breakthrough Institute blog (see table to the right), costly imports of fossil fuels to partially cover the shuttered reactors has led to a chronically increasing fuel bill and the country’s first trade deficit in 30 years (to the tune of -$32 billion).
From a climate change perspective, it also looks bad — emissions are rising steeply as the Japanese electricity sector once again ‘goes fossil’, as illustrated in the carbon-intensity-from-energy chart below:
An obvious question to ask is, would Japan have faced this situation today if it had never pursued nuclear energy? I think the answer is two-fold: