After Japan quake, new questions about nuclear power

  • Published on March 14th, 2011

simpsons nuclear reactor

Why are we doubling down on nuclear power? In the wake of the Japan earthquake, that’s the question being asked from Germany to Switzerland to California and Washington DC.

With climate change on everyone’s minds, nuclear power was being pushed as an option with zero greenhouse gas emissions (although once you take processing and transport into account, the numbers are a little more complicated). President Obama included billions of dollars in subsidies for the nuclear industry as part of his budget packages.

But let’s face it – while the mercury emitted from coal-fired plants poisons the environment for years, and the greenhouse gases cranked out by fossil fuels could change the planet for thousands of years, a busted nuclear plant could make large swaths of the planet uninhabitable for tens of thousands of years. Just ask the folks who live in the shadow of Chernobyl.

And while the folks who run the industry argue the odds are long of a disaster ever happening… those numbers came up over the weekend. And while US power plants like California’s Diablo Canyon are rated to stand up to earthquakes as high as 7.5… quakes happen, and sometimes they’re big quakes.

Change of plans

So while Japanese officials desperately scramble to keep their Fukushima Daiichi Plant from melting down, and a third reactor goes into partial meltdown, officials in the rest of the world scramble to back off of plans to spend billions of dollars to put more of these risky, vulnerable plants into action.

But not in Washington, DC, where the Obama admin is inextricably sticking to its guns.

Amid calls for a moratorium on construction of any new domestic plants, Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman said nuclear power must be considered as part of any energy strategy. He said 20% of all U.S. energy comes from nuclear power, and it accounts for 70% of all carbon-free energy.

“We do see nuclear power as continuing to play an important role in building a low-carbon future. But be assured that we will take the safety aspect of that as our paramount concern,” he said.

…“It remains a part of the president’s overall energy plan,” white House spokesman Jay Carney said. “When we talk about reaching a clean energy standard, it is a vital part of that.”

European Union:

European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said on Monday that safety at older German nuclear power stations must be checked rigorously, and he refused to rule out closures if necessary.

He told Deutschlandfunk radio that the crisis at a Japanese nuclear plant had changed the world and put into question what had been regarded as safe and manageable.

“Europe has to wake up from its Sleeping Beauty slumber” about nuclear safety, Austria’s Environment Minister Nikolaus Berlakovich told reporters in Brussels. He suggested an EU-wide stress test for nuclear plants, much like European banks have been tested for their ability to cope with financial shocks.

“The pictures from Japan show us that nothing, even the worst, is unthinkable,” EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger told Germany’s Deutschlandfunk radio.

But… The governments of Russia, China, Poland and even earthquake-prone Chile say they are sticking to their plans to build more reactors. Spain warned against hasty decisions.


Chancellor Angela Merkel says Germany is suspending for three months a decision to extend the life of its nuclear power plants.

Merkel’s Monday announcement follows opposition calls to scrap the extension altogether in the wake of explosions at a nuclear plant in Japan.

Her government last year pushed through a decision to extend the life of the country’s 17 nuclear power stations by an average 12 years. A previous government decided a decade ago to shut them all by 2021.


Switzerland ordered a freeze on new plants or replacements “until safety standards have been carefully reviewed and if necessary adapted,” Energy Minister Doris Leuthard said. The decision put on hold the construction of nuclear power stations at three sites approved by Swiss regulatory authorities.


But India’s plans – already facing fierce resistance from local residents near the designated site for one new plant – are likely to face even greater public opposition in the wake of the events in Japan.

…It remains to be seen whether… soothing words will be sufficient to assuage jittery Indians, or whether the citizens and politicians in this raucous democracy will have a serious rethinking about the wisdom of such an aggressive expansion of nuclear power to meet their pent up energy needs.

Indians are particularly sceptical about promises made by big business, whether state-owned or private. And with good reason: this is, after all, the country of the Bhopal chemicals disaster – the world’s biggest industrial accident.

Voting with their wallets

While the White House may be gung-ho, the folks with the money are less sanguine. Not tied down by political considerations, investors tend to be more-reality-based. And they’re bearish.

New England:

Stock analysts are telling investors to back off from companies like Entergy,  that’s been trying to get new nukes up and running in Massachusetts, Vermont and New York.


Citi analyst Brian Chin [notes] Edison International (EIX) and Pacific Gas & Electric (PCG) operate nuclear facilities (San Onofre and Diablo Canyon) that are similar to the Japanese facilities that were damaged. Chin says it’s unclear whether they will receive new political pressure, because another recent explosion had already heightened scrutiny of the plants.”

So what’s next? While shares of nuke companies slid, shares of solar power companies advanced. If i were a betting man….

More on the quake and nukes:

(Springfield nuclear reactor image © FOX Television)

About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.