Matt Bennett and Robert Walther: Forum on Energy Q&A

Third Way is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that emphasizes “modern ideas aimed at the center.”

Matt Bennett Third Way

Matt Bennett, Senior Vice President and Co-founder

Third Way Senior Vice President and Co-founder Matt Bennett recently penned a piece entitled, “Drawing the Right Lessons from Fukushima.” The author concluded that, in spite of the “undeniably frightening” news coverage of the tsunami and ensuing accident at Fukushima Daiichi, the United States must not leap to an assumption that nuclear energy is too risky.

“We believe,” Bennett wrote, “that the opposite is true: that it is far too risky for the U.S. not to keep nuclear energy as a significant part of our electric power mix.”

Robert Walther Third Way

Robert Walther, Senior Advisor for Clean Energy

Forum on Energy posed a series of questions to Bennett and Robert Walther, Senior Advisor for Clean Energy at Third Way. Their responses examine the events at Fukushima, assess the current state of affairs and eye the road ahead for nuclear energy in the United States and emerging markets around the world. 

Forum on Energy: What are the right lessons to be learned from Fukushima for Japan, the U.S. and the world?

Third Way: Watching the coverage of the tsunami’s impact on the Fukushima plant over a year ago was undeniably frightening. In the disaster’s aftermath, some have concluded that nuclear energy is just too risky; not just in Japan, but also in Europe and the United States. We believe the opposite is true: that it is far too risky not to keep nuclear energy as a significant part of our electric power mix. No one disputes that the damage inflicted on Fukushima by the earthquake and enormous tsunami raised legitimate questions about the safety and regulatory oversight of reactors worldwide. In the United States, both industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission took immediate steps to evaluate and strengthen the safety of the handful of American nuclear plants near fault or coastlines. The more in-depth questions are also on their way to being answered. When they are, we must make sure that the lessons learned from Fukushima are applied to make nuclear plants around the world even more secure against extreme events.

Forum on Energy: Understandably, there has been great concern about radiation releases in Japan yet no one has yet been injured or sickened. How do the public health risks and benefits of nuclear power compare to fossil fuels? Renewables? 

Third Way: The fact is that nuclear energy has been proven to be safe, and it has posed far less of a threat to public health than coal, the world’s primary fuel for producing electricity. At least until renewables like wind and solar reach the scale, the most important question regarding coal, nuclear, and natural gas is relative risk.

The relative risk of nuclear energy is very low. Let’s start with the most extreme measure of risk — fatalities. Nuclear has had zero. That is the death toll from the worst American nuclear energy accident in history, at Three Mile Island, as well as every other radiological incident at American nuclear plants in the history of civilian nuclear energy. So far, no one has died from the nuclear accident at Fukushima either. By contrast, last year alone, 21 American miners died extracting coal — and that was a good year. Nearly 50 coal miners died in 2010. Coal’s toll goes well beyond the risk to miners, as pollution from coal-fired power plants kills an estimated 13,000 Americans every year.

Another element of risk is climate change. Here as well, nuclear energy’s number is the same memorable zero; nuclear emits no greenhouse gases. By contrast, coal is the most greenhouse gas-intensive of the major electricity generation sources in the U.S. We believe it’s vital that we switch away from coal to lower carbon emitting baseload sources, including nuclear.

Forum on Energy: Japan has shut down nearly all their nuclear reactors for routine service and now faces opposition by local governments to restart the reactors. What’s at stake for Japan if they do not restart the reactors?

Third Way: In the aftermath of Fukushima Daiichi, Japan has seen both its carbon emissions and intensity and the price of electricity skyrocket. Japan has no domestic supply of energy and long relied on costly imports of coal, oil, and natural gas for power. To become energy independent and reduce costs, Japan had a long-term plan to generate over half of its electricity from nuclear energy. In less than six months after the disaster, according to research by the Breakthrough Institute, Japan saw its carbon emissions increase by 4 percent and carbon intensity jump by 15 percent. Natural gas, while much cleaner than coal or oil, is very expensive in Japan, around $15.00/million cubic feet (MCF) compared with approximately $2.00/MCF in the United States. Replacing its nuclear fleet with natural gas and other fossil fuels would dramatically increase prices in Japan and has already created the country’s first trade deficit in 30 years.

Forum on Energy: What impact will Fukushima have on the global nuclear marketplace — in Europe, Middle East and Asia?

Third Way: In the long run, Fukushima may shift the geographic balance of nuclear energy from Europe, where it is heavily relied upon now, to Asia, where China and India are poised to build their own nuclear renaissance. The governments of China and India have been planning ambitious nuclear expansions to provide power to their booming economies and more than 1 billion-combined citizens who now live in energy poverty. They saw the disaster, where a nuclear power plant withstood a massive earthquake and tsunami with no loss of life, as confirming the safety of nuclear energy. Many European countries, like Germany, Spain, Italy and Switzerland, were already ambivalent about the use of nuclear energy and are now leaning more heavily against its use. Perhaps the most extreme example of this comes from Germany, which has a politically powerful anti-nuclear bloc and decided to phase out its use of nuclear energy.

Forum on Energy: The nuclear build-out in the US may have slowed but probably for reasons other than Fukushima Daiichi. Is the U.S. taking the right approach to the development of domestic nuclear power?

Third Way: While it’s little noticed, there is bipartisan consensus between President Obama and Republicans in Congress on nuclear energy’s important role in generating electricity. But even with the NRC’s approval of the construction of two new reactors in Georgia, the hope that the United States will build dozens of new plants has dimmed. The prospect of a renaissance, however, slowed not due to Fukushima, but because the price of natural gas has hit record lows, and government loan guarantees, which are vital for financing new plants, have been slow to materialize.

There is the basis for a consensus on a national energy policy that includes the expanded use of nuclear energy to provide safe, emissions-free electricity. This requires clear, stable, and long-term government policies. Risk must be put in a full and accurate context. Utilities need timely access to private capital. If we can get to this point, and for the sake of our economy, public health, and addressing climate change we must, we will see a domestic nuclear renaissance.

RELATED: Global Nuclear Energy: One Year After Fukushima Daiichi