Nuclear's Once Bright and Shiny Future Blinks Out

Where, outside of Iran, will new nuclear power plants be contemplated? Wherever that may be, it looks to be increasingly few and far between.
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Don't look now, but one of the biggest and most famous industries in the world, nuclear power, once seen as the lynchpin of the future, is reeling yet again after huge political setbacks in Japan and France.

Last year's disaster at Fukushima is having an even bigger effect than the Chernobyl disaster of the '80s. The latter could be blamed on the backward old Soviet Union. But Fukushima happened in future-oriented Japan.

May has seen the shutdown of all 54 nuclear reactors in Japan. Nuclear power had provided one-third of Japan's electric power.

Then came the defeat of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Japan has just made itself nuclear energy-free for the first time in more than 40 years. But the country hasn't prepared for the adjustment.

The new French administration plans to cut the nation's use of nuclear power by one-third by 2025. Currently, France relies on nuclear power for 75% of its electricity. (The US gets 20% of its electric power from nuclear.) New Socialist President Francois Hollande's plan would cut that to 50%. He also plans to shut down Fessenheim, France's most famous nuclear plant, which is located in an area of seismic activity on the Rhine River.

Before these developments, Germany and Switzerland both decided to phase out nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

These are huge developments in the energy economy, and a stunning reversal for a technology that once epitomized the future.

When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich emerged as a leading presidential candidate last year, I went back and read through some novels of the future by Isaac Asimov that he and others, such as left-liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, cite as major influencers of their youth.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, which Asimov began writing in 1941, is set in the far future. It revolves around the fall of the galactic empire and the rise of a discipline called psychohistory, the story element that so attracted Gingrich, Krugman, and others, in which human history can supposedly be predicted by a form of mathematical sociology. One thing that was so amusing to me in the stories, which are charming, is how nuclear power was constantly presented as a totem of advanced civilization, almost to the point of fetishism, with leading characters even having nuclear-powered personal devices.

By the '80s, of course, nuclear was no longer such an element of faith among futurists. But it had become a staple of the Soviet bloc, with its penchant for centralization, and was well-established in Western countries as well. Such as, well, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, and France.

I spoke at anti-nuclear rallies in the '80s and knew the late German Green leader Petra Kelly well, but I'm open to nuclear power being part of the energy portfolio.

The news flow keeps going in the opposite direction, however, even though the greenhouse effect leading to climate change was advanced by nuclear advocates as a rationale for new expansion.

Nuclear power plants are expensive to construct, despite decades of massive subsidies for fission nuclear power, now a very mature technology. And the biggest subsidies are not the direct financial subsidies, which dwarf those given to renewable energy (as do subsidies for fossil fuels, a long mature industry), but the indirect but very real subsidies of socializing risks posed by radioactive waste and potential accidents and construction costs by shifting those to ratepayers and taxpayers.

And nuclear plants may be vulnerable to cyber-warfare, an increasing concern of defense strategists. Hacking in to take down a wind farm is not catastrophic, aside from the power loss, which can be made up. Hacking in to take down a nuclear power plant is a very different matter.

Looking beyond the problems with fission reactors, nuclear fusion may hold great promise in the future. But that future is still very far off.

Here in California, we had tremendous debates about nuclear in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, during his first two terms in office, Governor Jerry Brown rejected utility plans to build dozens of nuclear plants across the state, focusing California instead on conservation and renewable energy. The state's moves on energy efficiency were highly successful, and have served as a model for many governments in the US and around the world.

After Brown left office the first time, renewable energy efforts lagged. But when his former chief of staff, Gray Davis, became governor in the late '90s, he revived them, with a 20% Renewable Portfolio Standard.

Then Arnold Schwarzenegger amped them up tremendously, in the process enacting California's landmark climate change program.

Now Brown, back as governor for an historic third term, is pushing forward to the target of one-third of the state's electric power coming from renewable sources by 2020, a target first set by Schwarzenegger. I expect Brown to win another term in 2014, which would place him at the helm of these efforts through January 2019, the year before the 33% Renewable Portfolio Standard is to be reached.

Brown says that the target won't be easy to meet, but that it will be met.

Though California turned away from the big nuclear path decades ago, with the Rancho Seco plant outside the state capital shut down by public vote in 1989 (with stars such as Demi Moore and Bruce Willis involved), the state does have two commercial nuclear power plants, at Diablo Canyon on the Central Coast and at San Onofre on the South Coast. With the big push for renewables, they won't need to be replaced.

Diablo, as it turned out, is near an earthquake fault, which hasn't been a problem so far.

San Onofre has been more problematic. It's presently in a de facto shutdown state.

Its utility owner and operator, Southern California Edison, had predicted a June re-start of the plant, but has now backed away. The dual-reactor plant has been off-line for more than three months, due to unusual levels of wear and erosion on relatively new tubes carrying radioactive water.

This isn't the first time that the plant has gone missing in action.

I reported during the height of California's electric power crisis in March 2001 that a major unreported failure at San Onofre pushed the plant offline and would cost the state big bucks to make up for the lost power on the exorbitant spot market that then existed under the state's failed deregulatory scheme. Why did it cost the state? Because Edison, like the other private utilities, had to be bailed out by the state, which was forced to take over the purchase of electric power.

"Why worry? Each of us is wearing an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back." Bill Murray's quip in Ghostbusters marked the shift away from nuclear's talisman-of-the-future status.

It will be interesting to see if San Onofre's absence makes any difference this summer.

How will things turn out for Japan?

Former California State Controller Steve Westly, who served on the Secretary of Energy's advisory board and warned the administration about Solyndra, travels in Asia and, though pleased by the move away from nuclear and towards renewables, worries that Japan's dramatic move may be too sudden, with potential problems this summer. Germany, in contrast, is phasing out all its nuclear plants over time, not simply shutting them down all at once.

Of course, nuclear power, despite its problems, is not the energy issue that has so fatefully driven the US down the wrong path.

Our failure as a society to develop and implement cleaner and greener energy systems in the nearly 39 years since the Arab oil embargo is the principal reason why the US is so fatefully embroiled in the Islamic world.

Both the political and media cultures in the US have failed to maintain a focus on the needed transition from the old energy economy to the new.

Much of our geopolitical quandary is driven by this failure, which has led to a heavy-handed big presence in the Islamic world, and to an emphasis on nuclear technology which inspires others to want the same.

As in, say, Iran. Which, strikingly, has not been dissuaded in the least from its insistent course by the Fukushima disaster, or by the tough sanctions imposed on it due to its deeply suspected designs on nuclear weapons.

Absent our addiction to the old energy economy, of course, much of this, maybe most of it, wouldn't be happening.

As for nuclear's future, once so bright and shiny that it was a staple of pop futurism, it appears to be blinking out. With the advanced industrial world still on shaky financial footing after the great global recession, and nuclear a major presence in the power portfolio, few countries will follow Japan in promptly and simply shutting down their nuclear plants.

But where, outside of Iran, will new nuclear power plants be contemplated? Wherever that may be, it looks to be increasingly few and far between.

Meanwhile, the imagined nuclear-powered personal devices of Asimov's Foundation future look positively quaint, especially compared to the solar-powered watch I'm wearing now. The future is a lot closer than many may fear, or like to think.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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