March 20, 2016
Nuclear power requires obedience, as well as massive subsidy and the suppression of competition from other forms of low-carbon energy. These are not attractive platform planks in market-oriented democracies, so subterfuge in the service of political clout is also needed.
Abhorrent prerequisites need not lead to political defeat these days. Raise enough money. Scare enough people. Demonize and hamstring enough alternatives. Hornswoggle enough regulators. Procure celebrity endorsements. Rhapsodize new designs transcending today’s shortcomings. Just don’t make fools of your backers, or befoul their living rooms.
That is where Fukushima fits in. A few times in the six-decade history of nuclear power, some event once deemed impossible has taken place—shifting the ground under politicians and investors and forcing the abandonment of plants well along or already built.
Fukushima did not undermine a budding nuclear renaissance. For economic reasons, there was none. The 30-plus reactors that had applied for licenses in the United States in 2008-09 had shrunk by two-thirds before March 2011. The cost overruns at Olkiluoto and Flammanville were well underway and owed nothing to events in Japan. But Fukushima did tilt many nations away from the needed governmental benevolence sharply. Here’s why.
The accident involved a number of events once deemed by regulators to be impossible, or at least too unlikely to require countermeasures. Regulators in Japan and elsewhere had been asked, sometimes repeatedly, to require measures in contemplation of these events. At one time or another, they had declined to do so.
All of the following virtually impossible events happened over a stretch of a few days:
Here is what the world beheld as the accident unfolded:
So, as events deemed impossible in one decade come once again to terrify the next, one almost rational step at a time, Fukushima shows on a larger scale the lesson first taught at Three Mile Island—just how much damage events ruled out by regulators can do in a little time. While rising nuclear construction and operating costs coupled with falling costs of alternatives are at the root of nuclear power’s current difficulties, Fukushima definitely impedes the customary rescue attempts.
Peter A. Bradford
adjunct professor, Vermont Law School, and former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member