It's tough to take nuclear power plants out of the world's energy mix. The solution is to move ahead with newer, safer designs.
There’s much to not like about nuclear power. In an ideal world people wouldn’t rely on it. But the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan shouldn’t cloud what should be a clear-eyed view of the global energy future: The world needs nuclear in the mix.
Yes, renewables such as solar, wind, and geothermal will play a growing role. The oil price shock and Fukushima Daiichi bear witness to the need to get them online more quickly. But renewables now produce only a tiny fraction of the world’s energy needs. They are far from ready to shoulder the load as a major generator of electricity.
Today’s workhorse fuel for making electricity is coal. But it’s dangerous to mine. Burning it emits particulates into the atmosphere believed to cause about 10,000 premature deaths per year in the United States alone. It’s also a significant source of carbon-dioxide emissions, which contribute to climate change, including the acidification of oceans. These downsides add up to their own potential slow-motion disaster.
Nuclear power has a familiar list of concerns. Unanswered questions include how to protect plants from terrorists, how to prevent spread of nuclear materials that could be made into bombs, and how to permanently dispose of nuclear waste. These issues are likely to persist and may long defy completely satisfying solutions.
Yet nuclear power today provides about 20 percent of the electricity in the US and about 14 percent worldwide. Shutting it down would leave a void that would be difficult to fill. One country that recognizes this is China, which is moving ahead with building nuclear plants while simultaneously pushing hard to develop renewable energy and, unfortunately, also building new coal-fired power plants.