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Energy Think Tank: Nuclear's Future Is OK
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Energy Think Tank: Nuclear's Future Is OK

Energy

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The accident at the Fukushima nuclear plants has triggered health and safety fears in Japan. Elsewhere in the world, it has triggered a political crisis over the future of nuclear power.

Some say the accident, the worst since Chernobyl, will kill nuclear power as a viable alternative to carbon fuels.

Jesse Jenkins, director of Energy and Climate Policy at The Breakthrough Institute, says those fears are overblown. Along with Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the co-founders of the Oakland, California-based think tank, Jenkins writes in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine that the Fukushima accident will have little long-term impact on the nuclear power industry.

Jesse Jenkins joins us from the University of California at Berkeley. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JESSE JENKINS (The Breakthrough Institute): Thanks. It's a pleasure to join you.

HANSEN: The Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents brought construction of nuclear plants to a standstill. What makes the Fukushima accident different?

Mr. JENKINS: Well, actually the disasters in the past in Chernobyl or Three-Mile Island actually did much to help stall construction in the developed world. But actually, it didn't kill off nuclear power globally, which saw quite a number of plants constructed throughout the world, particularly in Asia and Japan in the 1990s and earlier in this decade.

And I think the reality with the Fukushima plant is that the same global dynamics that drove the continued construction of nuclear power, after the much worse disaster at Chernobyl, will continue to drive various countries around the world to look at nuclear power as one of the necessary technologies and energy sources in their domestic supply.

In a country like Japan, with essentially no domestic fossil fuel reserves -they have no oil, natural gas or coal in any abundant quantities - and so they turn to nuclear power.

HANSEN: In The Atlantic magazine article, you and your colleagues write: China and India, desperate for every kilowatt of power they can produce, will develop every available energy resource they have as fast as they can, including nuclear.

Are there any concerns at all about the safety of nuclear plants in those and other developing countries?

Mr. JENKINS: Well, I think it's still too early to tell what the safety implications will be for the new plants in China or India. Both countries have vowed to do a thorough review of the plant designs under construction. But both countries are already overly reliant on coal-fired power for most of their electricity, have become large net importers of coal. So they are reluctant to rely any further than they already are on coal.

And China, in particular, is already building hydropower, renewable energy technologies, like wind and solar as quickly as possible, and yet still plans to significantly scale up their supply of nuclear power within the latest five-year plan, which was recently adopted.

HANSEN: President Obama supports nuclear power as a necessary component of a green economy. How will Fukushima affect the future of nuclear power in the U.S.?

Mr. JENKINS: The reality is that only a few plants are moving forward at this point - only a couple in Georgia, maybe one or two in Texas. And this may make that number diminish somewhat. But in the long term, the future of nuclear power really hinges on whether or not the industry can develop plants that can be built faster, can be built cheaper, and can be operated more safely.

HANSEN: And how do you achieve that?

Mr. JENKINS: Well, there are a number of new designs that have been proposed in recent years. And the challenge has been moving those forward from the drawing papers to actual operation. And if there is a future for nuclear power in the United States at this point, the Fukushima crisis may require an accelerated effort to prove those designs, test the materials and operation of those units, and to get them through the licensing process at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which ensures the safety of our nuclear power fleet in the United States.

HANSEN: Jesse Jenkins is director of Energy and Climate Policy at the Breakthrough Institute. He joined us from the studios of the Journalism School at the University of California at Berkeley. Thank you.

Mr. JENKINS: Thank you.

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