Nuclear Nations Turn To Natural Gas And Renewables As more details emerge about the damage at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, governments around the globe are reassessing nuclear power. Japan and Germany have canceled plans to build new reactors and are searching for alternative sources of power.
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Nuclear Nations Turn To Natural Gas And Renewables

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Nuclear Nations Turn To Natural Gas And Renewables

Nuclear Nations Turn To Natural Gas And Renewables

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

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?

RICHARD LESTER: 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.

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: 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.

PHILIP SHARP: 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...

KEVIN BOOK: 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.

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: Ernest Moniz, head the Energy Initiative at MIT, says a nuclear renaissance in the U.S. isn't likely anytime soon.

ERNEST MONIZ: 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.

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.

ED LYMAN: 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: 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.

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: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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