Foreign Policy: Keeping US's Nuclear Future Bright

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The explosions and fires that have broken out at the reactors at Japan's Fukushima power plant have caused many to worry about nuclear safety. But on Tuesday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu backed America's continuing support of nuclear power, despite the ongoing crisis in Japan.

hide captionThe explosions and fires that have broken out at the reactors at Japan's Fukushima power plant have caused many to worry about nuclear safety. But on Tuesday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu backed America's continuing support of nuclear power, despite the ongoing crisis in Japan.

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David Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and President and CEO of Garten Rothkopf.

Yesterday, the Obama administration swiftly, strongly and correctly took a stand for a reasoned approach to nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima crisis. Perhaps learning from the over-reaction that followed the Deep Water Horizon incident, Secretary Chu made it absolutely clear in remarks before the Congress, that while the U.S. must learn from the Japanese crisis, nuclear must remain part of America's on-going energy mix.

Chu said: "The Administration is committed to learning from Japan's experience as we work to continue to strengthen America's nuclear industry. Safety remains at the forefront of our effort to responsibly develop America's energy resources, and we will continue to incorporate best practices and lessons learned into that process. To meet our energy needs, the Administration believes we must rely on a diverse set of energy sources including renewables like wind and solar, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power. "

The reason this view is on target is simple: even as we watch the tragedy of errors and miscalculations unfolding at the TEPCO plants, nuclear remains by far the lowest risk form of energy production currently available at mass scale. Twenty percent of the world's energy comes from nuclear and there is literally no way the world can meet both rising demand and the desire to reduce carbon emissions without increasing significantly our stock of nuclear power plants. The current realistic alternative to nuclear for providing a significant portion of the earth's energy needs are all fossil fuels which are more dangerous to get, to refine, to distribute and to use given their impact on the environment. From the Massey mining disaster to Deep Water Horizon to the wars in the Middle East we have plenty of front page evidence of the risks associated with fossil fuels. Over 100,000 people have died in coal mining accidents in the U.S. in the past century alone. In contrast, over the past half century, the track record of nuclear safety is exemplary. In the worst disaster ever, Chernobyl, the death toll is estimated to be between 47 and 70. The confirmed death toll at Three Mile Island is zero.

When Dr. Jeffrey Sachs made this point today on Morning Joe, Mika Brzezinski lamented that only if there were pictures that showed those risks as dramatically as those currently filling the screen about Japan 's nuclear disaster. As she spoke however, the screen was filled with images of tsunami damage. In other words, precisely the images she wanted were on the screen as she spoke, because as Sachs rightly pointed out, fossil fuel use produces emissions which produce climate change impacts like rising sea-levels and more extreme weather patterns that will both amplify the negative impact of everything from earthquakes to major storms in coastal regions.

As is inevitably the case in the wake of disasters like that taking place at the Fukushima installation in Japan at the moment, there will a political furor. That's what happened after the Deepwater Horizon incident and within months, America had returned to its senses and resumed necessary drilling operations in the Gulf. Of course, we did so with a heightened sense of responsibility for maintaining and monitoring appropriate safety standards and that is important in this case too.

Paramount among the reforms that ought to be considered — beyond upping the physical standards of plants to withstand even greater stresses — is the obligation that nuclear power generators share more openly and automatically and in real time detailed radiation information internationally. The lack of available data on what is going on in the Fukushima plants and on the nature of the radiation being emitted suggests the operators have seemingly focused more attentively on controlling information rather than radiation leaks. While that may be harsh, nuclear plant disasters are inherently international in nature given the cross-border risks associated with radiation and any such risks should automatically be handled in a considerably more transparent fashion than they are now.

In addition, the apparent inability of the TEPCO managers to reach local fire and other emergency response officials due to the damage caused by the earthquake also suggests an area in which redundancies ought to be obligatory everywhere. The reality is that most of the new nuclear projects under way in the world today are in emerging markets, developing countries with fewer resources than in Japan. This is worrisome and the international community needs to recognize a special obligation not only to help set and maintain standards but to have rapid response capabilities in place to augment the ability of these countries to deal with emergencies.

The post-Fukushima reforms need to be undertaken not just in Japan, therefore, but worldwide as this event has very usefully revealed weaknesses that need to be addressed worldwide and areas where greater international cooperation is not only needed now but will be even more important in the future.

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