How Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Might Impact The U.S.

Posted on March 24th, 2011 by

Dr. Michael Webber, of the University of Texas at Austin, discusses the implications that Japan’s current nuclear crisis might have on the growth of the American nuclear industry.

Full Transcript:

Ben Lack: Recently in the news, there’s been this unfortunate occurrence of the nuclear reactor in Japan really becoming more unstable from the tsunami and the earthquake. Give us some of your thoughts on how that impacts the discussion of nuclear not only as a clean energy but as an energy source, in general, for the United States.
Michael Webber : In general, nuclear is considered a pretty reliable source of power. It’s pretty formidable once you spent the money to build it. It’s very expensive to build but cheap to operate. And then once you have it operating, it tends to be pretty reliable. It tends to be pretty safe. It tends to be pretty clean. And, so this is the good news of nuclear: It’s domestic, clean, low-cost source of power. However, it is not without its risks. It has issues with waste disposal and weapons perforation, and also the fear or concerns about public safety when we have either an attack or something goes wrong from nature. Nuclear has its risks and the best part of the trade-offs you have to contemplate. Are the risks to public safety worth the benefits environmentally because environmental downsides could be risks elsewhere. Nuclear is a mixed story for other people, but whether it even counts as a clean source or not. And, it already generates about 20% of our electricity and about 8% of our energy consumption overall. If nuclear is not part of the solution, then we have to find some of the source to replace it which would be difficult. That’s the general statement on nuclear. In terms of the implications about Japan, I think it’s going to be hard for the nuclear industry to overcome that. I don’t think they can’t, and it’s not that they won’t be able to. But, we’ll have to have the answers about why those reactors, which over days are still unstable or unsafe. But what that means for you as reactors or European reactors, is this a global phenomenon that they have to deal it? Or is this is a one-off? That’s always the risk for nuclear.
Ben Lack: It seems like the environment for the discussion of including nuclear as a larger piece of the portfolio has actually becoming  a much rosier picture, that, that, actually might happen. The administration has been behind that, and now something like this happened. Does that ruin all of the advancements that the nuclear industry has had? And so, we’re just going to go in the natural gas because it’s such a clean and reliable fuel?
Michael Webber : The nuclear, it has had a bad public reputation since the ’70s all the way through the early ’90s. And that was for a variety of reasons: People worried about protection, the weapons. They all worried about public safety. What do you do with the waste? They worry about corruption and mismanagement that the facilities cause overruns. There are a lot of reasons both anthropogenic and tautological that people didn’t like nuclear for. And these reasons are very strong in the ’70s or early ’90s. But since the early ’90s, they haven’t been very many nuclear accidents; a couple of minor mishaps in there. The power has actually gotten cheaper over time and the safety records have improved. The nuclear power plants are on more often. Generally speaking, the story of nuclear has been the one of improving performance for the last twenty years. And that improving performance has led to less criticism in the press and generally more favorable opinion among the people. So, the nuclear didn’t just clean up its act and run pretty commercials. It cleaned up its act and had better performance of time. And somehow people noticed and that positively translated into less criticism. Now, that we see what’s happening in Japan, a fair criticism that people are raising is whether the reactors in the US are designed the same way. Do they have the same kind of lack of fault tolerances for earthquakes? Where are we building these? Is this near waters or on a fault? So, nuclear is going to get a lot more attention because of Japan, and how that attention ultimately is decided in terms of the fate of nuclear or depend on how bad the situation in Japan ultimately becomes.
Ben Lack: The utility recently argued that they’d much rather do natural gas just because of the cost allocation, the capital outlay that they have to try to build a reactor. Is the argument still strong enough to go ahead and build the infrastructure to do nuclear when they’re looking at a natural gas play? We have a lot natural gas on the side that’s ready to be used.
Michael Webber : You’d probably have to build the structure for whatever your interest. If you’d want more nukes, you develop nuclear power plants. If you want more natural gas, you have to build more natural gas plants and more pipelines. If you want wind, you have to build transmission lines. All of the energy choices have a pretty serious capital impact in terms of outlays. Natural gas has a lower capital outlay because it’s just a power plant, and it’s cheaper there than a coal plant or nuke plant. But then you expose yourself to the volatility in gas prices, natural gas prices that we’ve had the last few years. Whether it remains false or not, I don’t know. It’s been pretty stable for the last few months. But that’s the risk. When the utility or a mine often says that natural gas is the crack cocaine of the utility, it’s actually because it’s so easy to build. You get your fix so quickly.
Ben Lack: Sure. Last question for you is just really personal. My question is why are you in the industry? Why does it fascinate you and why are you ultimately doing what you’re doing?
Michael Webber : Ultimately, I find a lot of satisfaction in working with this world of energy because energy is the most fundamental part of modern civilization. It’s really what drives a lot of what we do and how we’re different than pre-industrial societies. What we consume, how we consume, how much we consume differentiates us from the people in the 1700’s. Our form of government is the same. Our brain is the same. Our height is a little different, we’re a little taller, but, basically, were the same. The only difference is we consume energy differently than before. And so, energy is a modern maker. It’s different to a modern civilization and a pre-historic one or an antiquated one. So, it’s pretty fundamental to civilization which needs fundamental to water, food, several rights, education, liberty– all that is we take for granted, and actually energy is a big piece of that.
Ben Lack: And so you spend most of your time in the energy space?
Michael Webber : So, I spend almost all my time in the energy space. This is where the action is. I think this is where the solutions are. And I think we can have a larger effect for energy by attacking these other issues– women’s rights, education, name it, and then by tackling the meat individually.
Ben Lack: Dr. Webber thanks so much for giving us your time.
Michael Webber : Thank you. It’s very good.
Ben Lack: I really do appreciate it. I look forward staying in touch with you.
Michael Webber : My pleasure. Thank you.

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