Do We Need Nuclear Power to Keep the Lights On?

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In the aftermath of the earthquake and nuclear crisis in Japan, Americans are asking, "Don't we need nuclear power to keep the lights on?"

The answer: Not necessarily. Nuclear  power currently generates about 20 percent of the U.S. electricity supply, and it would be difficult to immediately shut all existing reactors down. But we don’t need to allow nuclear reactors to operate beyond the 40 years they were originally designed to operate for, and we don’t need to build new reactors.

Regulators in Japan extended the license of one of the reactors at Fukushima before the accident there, despite knowing that there were flaws in the reactor’s safety system. And the plant’s owner failed to adequately inspect and maintain the backup safety systems. This made the plant more vulnerable to the impact of the earthquake and tsunami that followed. And now some of Japan's food and water supplies are contaminated with radiation, and hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated from the area. Today (23 March 2011), news reports indicate that radiation levels that would endanger infants have infiltrated Tokyo's drinking water supplies.

We don’t have to take risks like that here in America. We have vast safe energy resources that can do a better job keeping the lights on. And they don’t explode, spill, or contaminate food supplies with radiation.

For example, taking advantage of all cost-effective opportunities to improve energy efficiency in the United States, would have the same impact as building more than 100 new nuclear reactors in the next 10 years. [1]

And investing in efficiency would deliver vastly superior results for our economy, too. Energy efficiency actually pays customers back with ongoing savings on electricity bills. Analysts at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimate that investing $520 billion in energy efficiency measures would eliminate $1.2 trillion in waste from the U.S. economy, saving citizens and businesses nearly $700 billion (in net present value terms) in the next 10 years.

At the same time, America’s entire electricity needs could be met by the sunlight falling on a patch of Nevada desert 100 miles square, or by the wind blowing across North Dakota.

All we need to to is shift America's energy policy to encourage the development of these safer energy resources.

[1] Comparison based on nuclear power's ability to reduce global warming pollution. McKinsey estimates that investing $520 billion in energy efficiency measures would reduce annual emissions of global warming pollution by 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually by 2020. Based on Frontier Group calculations, that level of pollution reduction could be achieved by 100 GW of new nuclear reactors, operating at 90 percent capacity, if it fully displaced existing coal.