Inside Clean Energy: 10 Years After Fukushima, Safety Is Not the Biggest Problem for the US Nuclear Industry

Proponents want atomic energy to be part of the clean energy transition, but high costs are a major impediment.

Japanese Police wearing protective suits search for tsunami victims about 12 miles away from Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant on April 7, 2011 in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. Credit: Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images

Japanese Police wearing protective suits search for tsunami victims about 12 miles away from Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant on April 7, 2011 in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. Credit: Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images

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Today is an uncomfortable anniversary for the nuclear industry and for people who believe that nuclear power should be a crucial part of the transition to clean energy.

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami led to waves so high that they engulfed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, wrecking the backup generators that were responsible for cooling the reactors and spent fuel. What followed was a partial meltdown, evacuations and a revival of questions about the safety of nuclear power.

Ten years later, it would be easy to look at the moribund state of nuclear power in the United States and in much of the rest of the world and conclude that the Fukushima incident must have played a role. But safety concerns that Fukushima highlighted, while important, are not the main factors holding back a nuclear renaissance. The larger problem is economics, and the reality that nuclear power is substantially more expensive than other sources.

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Indeed, one of the remarkable things about Fukushima’s legacy in the United States isn’t how much things have changed in the nuclear industry, but how little.

The high costs of nuclear power are part of why Gregory Jaczko, who was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the time of the Fukushima disaster, thinks that new nuclear plants are not likely to be a substantial part of the energy transition.

“If we need nuclear to solve climate change, we will not solve climate change,” he told me, adding that much of the talk of nuclear as a climate solution is “marketing P.R. nonsense.”

Jaczko clashed with the industry when he was the NRC chairman and has since become a critic of the industry. He now teaches at Princeton and is an investor in a renewable energy company. In some energy circles, where researchers hold out hope for a new generation of nuclear plants, his comments are pretty close to fighting words.

Meanwhile, prominent figures like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates argue that nuclear has to be part of a climate solution. He has invested in emerging technologies that he says will be safer and less expensive than previous nuclear reactors.

But I don’t want to frame this as a debate between equivalent sides, because it is difficult to examine the U.S. nuclear industry and conclude that it has a bright future.

The country gets about 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants, a fleet of 94 nuclear reactors. Nuclear plants do not directly release carbon into the atmosphere, making them a leading source of carbon-free electricity.

But the U.S. nuclear plant fleet is getting old. Most of the plants were built in the 1970s or 1980s and some are now operating beyond their expected lifespans. The oldest plant is Nine Mile Point in Oswego, New York, which opened in 1969.

The youngest nuclear plant is Watts Barr in Tennessee, where Unit 1 opened in 1996 and Unit 2 opened in 2016. No other nuclear reactors have opened since the mid-1990s.

There are almost no new plants on the way. The exception is the Vogtle plant in Georgia, where two new reactors are under construction, with the first scheduled to come online this year following delays and cost overruns that have turned a $14 billion project into one costing $25 billion and counting.

The Energy Information Administration lists just one other nuclear plant that is being planned—a series of a dozen small reactors to be located at the Idaho National Laboratory, with a cost of $6.1 billion. The developer of the reactors, NuScale Power, is hoping to begin producing electricity in 2029 and serve as a model for a smaller and safer reactor design. The plant’s owner would be the state-run Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, which would sell the electricity to local utilities. Some of those utilities have backed out of plans to buy the electricity, citing concerns about costs, but the Utah company says the project remains on track.

Among the projects that were started but never finished were Unit 2 and Unit 3 at the V.C. Summer plant in South Carolina, which halted construction in 2017, as costs were spiraling out of control.

Nuclear plants are expensive largely because of technical complexity that drives up manufacturing and construction costs. A new nuclear plant has an average levelized cost of $163 per megawatt-hour, which takes into account the costs of construction and operation, according to the investment bank Lazard. To understand what that number means in the market, compare it to competing sources of electricity, like $59 for combined-cycle natural gas, and $37 and $40 for solar and wind, respectively, according to Lazard.

At those prices, a company doesn’t want to build a nuclear plant unless someone else is paying for it, which means projects need to be heavily subsidized by the government or backed by utility ratepayers.

Even if costs were a non-issue, there still would be safety concerns.

Jaczko pushed for changes to U.S. nuclear safety rules, largely unsuccessfully, before he left the government in 2012. He said the industry’s voluntary changes are not enough.

I asked the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, how it has responded to the lessons of Fukushima. Doug True, a senior vice president, responded with a list of initiatives and spending, including $4 billion for improving safety equipment and training.

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“Consequently, nuclear power remains a key element of our nation’s strategy for addressing the climate crisis and the industry stands ready to play a pivotal role in the future of a carbon-free electricity grid,” he said in an email.

Following the 2011 disaster, Japan took a big step away from nuclear power, shutting down plants and briefly increasing the use of fossil fuels. The nuclear industry likes to point to the fact that there was not a single death directly caused by radiation from the plant, but that downplays the horror of a situation that could easily have been much worse, and the continuing challenges of cleaning up the site.

Germany also responded to Fukushima by moving away from nuclear power, with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government determining that the safety risks of this power source exceeded the benefits.

Fukushima “left an undeniable mark on the public psyche,” said Aditi Verma, a fellow at Harvard’s Managing the Atom project, writing, with two co-authors, in the journal Nature this month.

She said that the nuclear industry’s assessments of risks often fail to account for collateral damage to lives and the environment. This is part of a bigger picture in which the industry doesn’t work hard enough to understand the needs or address the concerns of regular citizens, she said.

But the self-examination and reform in Japan and Germany are exceptions to what happened in most places.

I asked Jaczko to describe the legacy of Fukushima in the United States.

“I don’t think there is that much of a legacy,” he said. “It didn’t change the landscape of nuclear technology in the U.S. and most of the rest of the world.”


Fukushima’s Effects on Germany: In my reporting on Germany’s energy transition, I found that questions about nuclear power were a major source of division, which have largely gone away only because of the country’s nuclear phaseout following the Fukushima disaster. This week, Patrick Graichen, the director of the German think tank Agora Energiewende, discussed the ban and its aftermath in a Twitter thread. Like many German energy experts I’ve interviewed, Graichen is adamant that Germany made the right choice with the ban on atomic energy, and goes through details of how the country’s electricity system and prices have adapted to the phaseout. You may ask why Germany, of all countries, would be the one other than Japan to respond so forcefully to Fukushima. The answer is that Germany has a history of a strong anti-nuclear movement, and public opinion in the country was also shaped by the trauma of having the 1986 Chernobyl disaster happen so close to Germany’s borders.

The Kruemmel nuclear power plant stands illuminated on the Elbe River on June 2, 2011 in Geesthacht, Germany. The German government moved away from nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
The Kruemmel nuclear power plant stands illuminated on the Elbe River on June 2, 2011 in Geesthacht, Germany. The German government moved away from nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A Crossroads for the Natural Gas Industry: The Seattle Times and Inside Climate News collaborated on a project looking at how the natural gas industry is responding to rising pressure to reduce emissions, and a wave of city policies that are banning natural gas hookups in new construction. The Times’ Hal Bernton started things off with a story about how one company is capturing gas from landfills, and how that fits into the larger issues for the gas industry. My contribution was a story about how some cities have banned gas hookups, and the backlash by states that are responding by restricting the cities’ ability to enact the bans. 

Vineyard Wind Gets Closer to Reality: After years of waiting, the Vineyard Wind 1 offshore wind farm now has an environmental impact statement from federal regulators, a step that sets up a vote to approve construction in the near future, as Jon Chesto and Jeremy Cox report for The Boston Globe. The 800-megawatt project would be the first super-size wind farm in the United States. “We look forward to reaching the final step in the federal permitting process and being able to launch an industry that has such tremendous potential for economic development in communities up and down the Eastern seaboard,” said Lars Pedersen, CEO of Vineyard Wind, the company developing the project, in a statement.

Federal Loan Program Makes Big Hire: The Biden administration has hired Jigar Shah to run the Department of Energy’s $40 billion loan program, as Jeff St. John reports for Greentech Media. Shah is a big name in the clean energy business world as both an investor in energy technologies and a co-host of The Energy Gang podcast. “I’m not kidding when I say I’m more terrified than excited,” Shah said about the responsibility of running the program in his farewell episode of the podcast.

Goodbye and Thank You, Greentech Media: While we’re talking about farewells, Greentech Media is about to mark the end of its run as a leading news source for the clean energy economy. The owner, the global energy research firm Wood Mackenzie, has decided to close the news site. That’s a shame and I will miss Greentech Media’s far-reaching coverage. I will follow Greentech Media reporters in whatever they do next and appreciate the work they’ve done.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.