Stephen M. Walt

Will the nuclear power industry melt down?

The scope of devastation from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is heart-rending, and readers who are in a position to help should donate generously to the charity of their choice. (See here for a list of worthy options). The immediate consequences of the disaster are real enough, but today’s New York Times also identifies ...

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The scope of devastation from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is heart-rending, and readers who are in a position to help should donate generously to the charity of their choice. (See here for a list of worthy options).

The immediate consequences of the disaster are real enough, but today’s New York Times also identifies what could be an even more significant long-term effect of this event: the curtailing of plans to address global warming through sharply increased reliance on nuclear power.

The basic equation here is pretty simple. The only way to deal with climate change is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which in turns means reducing reliance on the burning of fossil fuels. Conservation, improved efficiency, and “green” energy sources like wind farms can help, but not enough to fill the gap without a significant curtailing of living standards. Accordingly, many recent proposals to address future energy needs have assumed that many countries — including the United States — would rely more heavily on nuclear power for electricity generation. It’s not a complete answer to the climate change problem by any means, but addressing it in a timely fashion would be more difficult if nuclear expansion is eliminated.

The destruction of the Fukushima nuclear plant is bound to set back these efforts, and it may derail them completely. At a minimum, it will make it much harder to get approval for new power plants — which already face classic NIMBY objections — which will drive up the cost and make a significant expansion of the nuclear industry politically infeasible in many countries, especially the United States.

This reaction doesn’t make a lot of sense because the costs and risks of nuclear energy need to be rigorously compared against the costs and risks of other energy sources and the long-term costs and risks of global warming itself. But that’s not the way that the human mind and the democratic process often work. We tend to worry more about rare but vivid events — like an accident at a nuclear plant — and we downplay even greater risks that seem like they are part of the normal course of daily life. Thus, people worry more about terrorist attacks than they do about highway accidents or falling in a bathtub, even though they are far more likely to be hurt by the latter than the former.

So, in addition to the thousands of lives lost, the billions of dollars of property damage, and the knock-on economic consequences of the Japanese disaster, we need to add the likely prospect of more damage from climate change down the road. It’s possible that clearer heads will prevail and guide either more stringent conservation measures or the sensible expansion of nuclear power (along with other energy alternatives), but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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