Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Reflecting on Nuclear Energy

By Catherine HwangPublished March 23, 2016

With the 5th anniversary of Fukushima in the last month, it is important to weigh the usefulness of nuclear energy and reflect on the steps we should take with nuclear energy.

By Catherine Hwang, 3/23/16

Alternative energy sources are ever-relevant topics these days—from Obama's Clean Power Plan that was put on hold by the Supreme Court to the debate on global warming, the fight over energy sources seems never-ending. Of recent notice is the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown this past weekend. In March 2011, a devastating tsunami borne of a major earthquake (scaled at 9.0) destroyed the power supply and cooling of three reactors in the Fukushima Prefecture, causing a serious nuclear meltdown.  No cases of radiation sickness were reported as of March 2016. However, beyond the overwhelming damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami, many concerns surrounding radiation leaks have popped up. Radiation leaked into the sea, generating fears of poisoned marine life and the Fukushima site has yet to be cleaned up of the melted fuel—and according to an interview in The Guardian, the timeline is projected to be 30 to 40 years. With the fifth anniversary last week, many have voiced their opinions against nuclear power policies.
Ex-Prime Minister of Japan Naoto Kan argued that nuclear power is "unsafe and too expensive to justify building new plants". Of course, Kan's influence is partly a result of experience with the happenings of Fukushima. And yet his point that new generation plants are highly costly is true. Though the US nuclear industry appears to be dying out, due to natural gas and an assortment of other issues, billions of dollars are still allocated to nuclear energy every year by the US government.
As a result of the Fukushima meltdown, the UN secretary-general called for an "assessment of the net cost impact of… mining fissionable material on local communities and ecosystems" in Australia, as Australian uranium had been used in Fukushima plants. And while Australia produces about 11% of the world's uranium, the industry generates under 0.2% of Australian national export revenue. In general, sentiment tied to Fukushima suggests that the returns of nuclear energy are not high enough to make it more promotable than other alternate forms of energy. Some of the major drawbacks to nuclear energy include high costs (aforementioned), risk of nuclear accidents, the ongoing debate on radioactive waste, impacts of mining uranium, and possible security problems.
But nuclear energy is also not a particularly dismissible industry in the US. According to the World Nuclear Association, the United States "has more private sector participation in… [producing] civilian nuclear power than any other nation". US government policy is also especially involved in nuclear energy. The government has been quite heavily involved in research, regulations, and development through policies such as the Energy Policy Act 2005 and various initiatives by the Department of Energy that push forward nuclear energy development, indicating an overall positive support on the government's part.
According to BloombergBusiness, nuclear energy provides about 19% of electricity for Americans. A report found that nuclear power plants played a significant role in Michigan to support the local economy, creating jobs and reducing carbon emissions valued at approximately $1 billion. The Nuclear Energy Institute noted that "the average nuclear plant generates approximately $470 million in economic output or value." Furthermore, on average, plants pay about $16 million in state and local taxes every year, benefiting local and state infrastructure (federal taxes are approximately $67 million annually).
Nuclear energy remains an important and vital initiative in the United States, economically and environmentally. It is undoubtable that it is a powerful source of energy and has great potential to be an excellent form of clean energy. However, the concerns brought into focus with the anniversary of Fukushima cannot be ignored. While the US sees greater returns in nuclear energy proliferation than, say Australia, it would be wise nevertheless to focus greater attention to developing ways to help to ensure that nuclear meltdowns can be avoided, as the costs risk exceeding benefits, and to ensure that measures are taken to regulate nuclear plants. Perhaps rather than building plants right away, funds should be re-adjusted to increase research. Or this can be as simple as open and reliable data collection to keep track of radiation levels (in Fukushima, a crowdsourced Geiger counter helped shed light on the radiation situation but due to its belated creation, critical information from the days immediately following right the accident is missing) which in turn helps to boost government trust.
Ultimately, though nuclear energy has been receiving some negative press, there remains significant economic and environmental benefits for the Unites, such that the program should not be abandoned. However, it is essential to develop it in a way that increases data collection, a better understanding of nuclear energy, and finds more secure ways as a future source of energy.