Nuclear Power, Alternatives and Sustainability

“The Forum on Energy is featuring content from the recent 7th annual U.S.-Japan Roundtable conference. Check back soon for new entries in the series.”

The afternoon session began with a welcome from Frank Sesno, Professor at the George Washington University and creator of Planet Forward, an initiative aimed at promoting new solutions to our shared challenges in energy, climate and sustainability. Sesno then moderated a panel discussion with Gwyneth Cravens, author of The Power to Save the World, Jessica Lovering of the Breakthrough Institute, Robert Perciasepe of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, and Dr. Christopher Cahill, professor of chemistry and international affairs at the George Washington University.

The discussion focused on the role of nuclear power in countries’ power production portfolios given its cost, safety and carbon considerations. Each of the participants emphasized the importance of nuclear power and identified both concerns and opportunities for the nuclear industry. Among the primary identified concerns was the need for companies and regulators to be transparent with the public about any and all accidents and to be active participants in the global energy debate.

Lovering, a Senior Analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, has published on the economic value of nuclear power from social, environmental, financial, security and legal perspectives. She addressed the conference audience with the question, “Does Japan need nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions?”

Energy transitions tend to happen slowly, for a variety of reasons. Between 1990 and 2011, per capita carbon emissions in the United States have dropped, while China is increasing. Levels in Germany, France and Japan have remained more or less the same. Since 2011, France has been roughly at the same level of low-carbon due to its nuclear. In Germany, there has been an increase in fossil fuel usage as coal replaces nuclear, and renewables replace natural gas. Japan has seen a jump following Fukushima.

The transition away from nuclear energy in Japan has led to significantly increased use of fossil fuels (more than 40 percent annually). As a result, increased air pollution has led to an estimated 4,000 additional deaths, as well as the first trade deficit in 30 years due to imported fuel prices and increased cost of manufactured goods.

Japan has historically failed to meet emissions targets. For example, in 1998 it pledged to reduce emissions by more than 100 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon equivalent by 2013. It actually climbed by more than 200 MMT in 2007 before dropping to the same levels it had in 1998. It has committed to reduce to 1990 levels by 2020, but since 2011, CO2 emissions have dramatically risen.

In order to meet the IEA’s 450 PPM requirements by 2040, Japan would need the full restart of all available reactors, plus additional nuclear construction and a 4x growth in renewables. The rates of new build in solar, wind and geothermal would need to be at unprecedented rates and size. Even if the growth is possible, the increase of renewables will require a huge amount of land that Japan does not have. Based on these assessments, Japan cannot decarbonize without nuclear power. It will even be difficult to decarbonize with nuclear power.