Monday, March 14, 2011

Shifting Energy Policy After Nuclear Accident

The MarketWatch headline this morning summed it up well enough: “Winter for Nuclear Industry” (later shortened to “Nuclear Winter”). Elsewhere, stories tell of a new caution about nuclear power after a combination of earthquake, tsunami, and power outage damaged reactors in Fukushima, Japan, enough to lead to explosions and minor releases of radioactive particles.

  • India will conduct an engineering study to see how its reactors might fare in a similar emergency. (The Times of India)
  • Switzerland has suspended licensing for nuclear facilities as it conducts an engineering study, and there is a call for a similar study across the European Union. (Irish Examiner)
  • U.S. politicians are calling for a safety study before any new reactors are put online or built. (CBS News)
  • Analysts think the pro-nuclear CDU party in Germany will lose the upcoming elections because of declining support for nuclear power among voters. (CNBC; Speigel)

It is hard to fund a nuclear power station in the best of times, so it’s likely that many of the stations currently seeking funding or in the early stages of construction will be halted. This is a good thing for several reasons, most fundamentally because there isn’t enough uranium in the world to supply the nuclear power stations currently operating for as long as they could last. Based on mining industry estimates, we will use up all the uranium we can find around 2110, but shortages will develop as soon as 2020 if the nuclear power industry is expanded as currently planned.

A slowdown in nuclear power requires a speedup in energy conservation measures and sustainable forms of energy generation. The United States has made that a lower priority because of the state of the economy, but the uncertainty over energy is one of the key reasons why an economic recovery is so slow to take hold.