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Robert FriBack to OpinionRobert Fri

Is a nuclear renaissance possible?

Beyond the tragic human toll of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami is another potential casualty: nuclear power. Before the recent events in Japan, many had predicted a nuclear renaissance in the U.S., but the Fukushima Daiichi plant now joins Three Mile Island and Chernobyl as an iconic lesson in the risks of nuclear power production. As a result, we are again grappling with the challenge of weighing these risks against the benefits of an energy source that reduces our dependency on greenhouse-gas-producing fossil fuels.

Striking the right balance is, as always, elusive. In my view, it will remain elusive until we build a few new nuclear plants in this country. Unless we do, we won’t know for sure how to build them, what they cost and how they perform. Without that information, there will be no nuclear renaissance in this country.

Meanwhile, the energy pundits’ commentary on the Japanese tragedy only goes to show why a few hard facts would be so useful. Nuclear proponents are reassuring us about the safety of this energy source. Nuclear engineers tell us that modern reactor designs are much safer than those of previous generations. And they’ve also got some great ideas for even more reliable, if somewhat exotic, reactor designs such as small factory-built reactors that just can’t go wrong. Governments are mounting yet another review of existing plants to assure the public that they are as safe as they can possibly be. In a couple of cases – in Germany, for example – politicians have closed a few plants just to prove they’re serious about ensuring safety. And nuclear regulators confirm they are doing their best to anticipate the risks of nuclear plant operations but nevertheless admit that they can’t predict all the possible events that could lead to a serious accident.

Opponents of nuclear power are, of course, using the events in Japan to suggest that nuclear power be phased out. Moderate critics sketch plausible, if remote, risks; the less restrained paint pictures of a nuclear plant meltdown. The nuclear industry, at least in the U.S., takes well-earned credit for a highly disciplined and effective system for promoting safe plant operation. Yet the level of oversight in quality-driven Japan has come into question in these past few weeks, giving nuclear opponents more ammunition.

All of this is a replay of a debate about nuclear power that’s been going on for decades, and it doesn’t help the general public to decide whether nuclear power is a good thing. I think that a major reason that it’s hard for the public to sort out these conflicting views is that nuclear power lies so far outside the everyday experience of most people. Nuclear power is a complex technology that relies on bending the inexorable laws of physics to our benefit. Because of the power of the nuclear reactions within a plant and the hazardous waste it produces, its safe operation requires a level of near-perfect vigilance that is simply hard for humans to sustain. If things go wrong, as they have in Japan, the prospect of radiation contamination fills most folks not just with fear but with dread. Contrast all that with a coal plant. You may not like the environmental side effects, but it’s not hard to understand how it works. Windmills seem pretty simple and less threatening by comparison, too.

So how do we decide whether nuclear power should be in the nation’s energy mix? I think the only place to start is to accept the possibility that a serious nuclear accident is remote but nevertheless real. Engineers are fallible, plant operators are not perfect, and regulators can’t predict the future. And even if our own engineers, operators and regulators were totally successful in avoiding an accident, it wouldn’t be enough. An accident anywhere in the world will create problems for nuclear power here, just as the Fukushima accident has turned the global nuclear industry inside out. In this connection, it’s unsettling to note that two-thirds of the 60 nuclear plants currently under construction are in China, India and Russia where plant operation and oversight are unlikely to be better than they are in the U.S.

To be sure, accepting this reality creates big problems for anyone who wants to build a new nuclear plant in the U.S. because the general public is likely to be averse to taking the risk of even a rare nuclear accident. To persuade them otherwise requires public trust in the authorities – the engineers, companies and regulators responsible for today’s nuclear power plants – who assure us that, on balance, the risk is acceptable. Trust in authority isn’t very high these days in the U.S., if the polls are any indication.

But someday the risks of climate change will weigh heavily enough in our collective consciousness to make us give nuclear power another hard look. When it does, we should at least be prepared to move quickly and confidently. That’s why we should build a few new nuclear power plants now to nail down the facts about their economics and operating performance. A limited investment in a nuclear future is a long way from the nuclear renaissance some were predicting in the U.S., but it’s nevertheless critically important that we make it. When the time comes to come to grips with the elusive balance between the risks and benefits of nuclear power, having the facts about nuclear power would certainly help.