No Nukes? Only If You Believe in Magic

By Mike Lemonick

One year ago today, a massive, 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan sent a huge tidal wave, more than 100 feet high at some points, up and over the coastline, killing some 20,000 people and wreaking unimaginable havoc over a wide swath of territory. For most Americans, however, it was the tsunami-triggered meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex that was the really scary part.  

As an indirect result of the disaster, only two of the nation’s 54 plants are now generating power, and the last two are likely to shut down soon. The Japanese, which once got 30% of their electricity from nuclear power, are limping along under severe power cuts, while utilities are ramping up the burning of coal and natural gas to try and make up some of the shortfall.

Which brings me to the subject of magic. The world’s developed nations have come to depend on ample, cheap electricity, and we shudder at the idea of giving it up. Developing countries like China and India aspire to do the same, and who can blame them? In the U.S., at least, we also think we have the unalienable right to drive whenever and wherever and as far as we want.

Rolling blackouts in Japan as a result of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. Credit Kyodo/Reuters.

But we know, too, that there’s a climate crisis going on. Poll after poll has confirmed that a majority of Americans are well aware of climate change. We don’t want it to happen, and we’re happy to do something about it — as long as that something doesn’t involve giving up relatively cheap plentiful electricity and our Constitutional right to drive long distances on relatively cheap, plentiful gas. Oh, and it all has to be safe, of course.

The only way to achieve this is through magic — the wave of a wand, maybe, or a hand reaching into a top hat, or some sort of incantation. Because the truth is that transitioning to an economy based on low-carbon energy is going to be a massive undertaking, especially if we attempt to do it in time to stave off a drastic rise in temperatures by the end of the century.

Steven Pacala and Robert Socolow of Princeton University have proposed one plausible strategy for getting there, but it’s extraordinarily ambitious, and it involves such suggestions as “use 40,000 square kilometers [more than 15,000 sq. mi.] of solar panels (or 4 million windmills) to produce hydrogen for fuel cell cars” and “eliminate tropical deforestation” and — most relevant for this weekend’s anniversary —  “Add double the current global nuclear capacity to replace coal-based electricity.”

All of this is very easy to say, but very hard to do. With wind and solar, the places where it blows and shines — the blustery Great Plains and the cloudless Southwest — are often very far from the places where most Americans live. With biofuels, you have to truck or pipe the stuff from where it’s made to where it will be consumed.

That means a whole new system of power lines and pipelines, and as my friend and former colleague Elisabeth Rosenthal sagely pointed out in a recent article in the New York Times, people don’t like power lines or pipelines. They love wind farms — as long as they’re somewhere out of sight. The Cape Wind project off the shore of Massachusetts is a perfect example: sure, renewable power is great, as long as it doesn’t spoil the view from my golf course.

Everyone seems to have his or her own favorite magic solution to this conundrum. The folks at insist that solar is about to become competitive with more conventional forms of electricity, but I was hearing that as far back as the mid-1990’s. They love wind, too, and about those power lines — not a problem!

Then there are the magic biofuel people. Thanks to “imminent breakthroughs” in labs all over the world, it turns out that fuel made from seaweed . . . or, no, algae . . . or sawdust . . . or agave . . . or one of a dozen other feedstocks are going to save us.

The truth is, that any of the myriad forms of magic proposed so far to keep the climate crisis from getting worse are either unproven or expensive or logistically difficult to implement.

An aerial view captures the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan on March 24, 2011. Credit: Air Photo Service Co. Ltd., Japan.

Or inherently scary. Nuclear power involves big risks, as Fukushima and Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have all demonstrated. Anyone who touts it as yet another magic answer to climate change is kidding himself or herself. It’s not cheap and it’s not perfectly safe. But then, neither is coal, which has killed uncounted numbers of people through respiratory disease and mine disasters, and which has ravaged the environment in Appalachia. “Clean coal,” in which carbon has been stripped from plant exhaust and pumped underground only solves part of that problem — and it, like many other magic solutions, is only in the earliest stages of development.

So while nukes have plenty of issues, it might be premature, albeit understandable, to rule them out as part of the climate solution. They have plenty of safety issues, and they’re hellishly expensive to build, but engineers are working on safer, cheaper nuclear plants.

I wish we didn’t have to think about nuclear power as a viable option for the future. Magic would be much nicer.

But I don’t believe in magic.

An earlier version of this story contained an image that may not have been of the Fukushima Daiichi facility. That error has been corrected.