RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And we're going to get an update now on another disaster that's still playing itself out.
In Japan, engineers examining the ruined nuclear reactors are discovering yet more damage, and radioactive water continues to leak out. The accident at the Fukushima plant has led many governments to reassess nuclear power.
As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, that could lead to big changes in energy use around the globe.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Before Fukushima, nuclear power was making a sort of comeback. Japan was planning 14 new reactors. Germany, famously anti-nuclear, had okayed several new plants. And utilities in the U.S. had plans for new reactors, as well. Now?
Professor RICHARD LESTER (Nuclear Engineering, MIT): Well, it's clear that nuclear power has been set back.
JOYCE: Richard Lester runs the nuclear engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Prof. LESTER: There'll be many years, I think - perhaps a decade, who knows -when we will still be dealing with the consequences of this accident.
JOYCE: What are those consequences? Well, Japan now says no, we will not build those 14 reactors. Germany? No new nukes, either. Other countries are rethinking nuclear plans, as well. So Japan and Germany will have to find another way to make more electricity.
Philip Sharp, who runs the research group Resources for the Future, says that's likely to be natural gas. Luckily, there seems to be plenty around.
Mr. PHILIP SHARP (Resources for the Future): We really have discovered, over the past three or four years, this very large quantity of gas, and therefore will not be very expensive relative to other fuels, and therefore will become the most likely fuel for new electric power plants.
JOYCE: A lot of that new gas is in the U.S., especially in underground shale deposits. Economist Kevin Book with ClearView Energy Partners says Japan could be a huge market for American gas. Except...
Mr. KEVIN BOOK (ClearView Energy Partners): The problem is, it can't leave right now. There's government policy and capacity that has to be put into place for the U.S. to participate. But the problem is that if the U.S. doesn't participate, other countries will.
JOYCE: The U.S. doesn't have facilities to liquefy much gas and ship it abroad. Foreign suppliers do. The Japanese government says it will also make up the loss of its nuclear future with solar power and other renewable fuels. Germany plans to do the same. In fact, close to a fifth of Germany's electricity already comes from renewable sources.
Mr. BOOK: Germany has successfully mobilized renewables as a way to create jobs, and they've done it with such a continuity of success, that they believe that not only is 40 percent renewables by 2020 possible, but it's probably going to be a popular political program.
JOYCE: Japan is farther behind in renewable energy. The country may turn to diesel fuel to make electricity in the short term. That could push up world oil prices.
In the U.S., nuclear plants provide a fifth of all electricity. But no one's built a new plant in decades. It's cheaper to keep the old plants running longer.
Ernest Moniz, head the Energy Initiative at MIT, says a nuclear renaissance in the U.S. isn't likely anytime soon.
Professor ERNEST MONIZ (Energy Initiative, MIT): It's not the end of nuclear power, but it will cast a lot of uncertainty over the next years.
JOYCE: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing whether to strengthen safety at American reactors. Moniz says if they do, it could raise the already-high cost of building a new reactor.
Mr. MONIZ: If new regulations come about that substantially impact the capital requirements or lead to a much more extended licensing and construction period, those could be quite detrimental to any new nuclear.
JOYCE: For nuclear skeptics like physicist Ed Lyman at the Union of Concerned Scientists, American reactor operators already need to spend more.
Dr. ED LYMAN (Physicist, Union of Concerned Scientists)): The main problem is that the NRC and the industry still believe that these types of events are so improbable that you don't have to spend a lot of money or time worrying about them. And as a result, they're getting what they pay for, which are inadequate plans which may not work.
JOYCE: Lyman says severe weather or flooding could cut power to a reactor just as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami did. He says backup safety equipment should be designed and proven to survive the most extreme events.
Fukushima shows that there will always be some risk from nuclear reactors. For Philip Sharp at Resources for the Future, that presents the public with a big question.
Mr. SHARP: To what degree we as a people are sort of beginning to accept that some of these things are high-risk, and how far are we willing to go in tolerating those high risks?
JOYCE: And the answer to that question could ultimately change the way the world makes electricity, and how much it costs.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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