While there may be good reasons for nuclear power to be used as a bridge fuel to a renewable energy future, I am confident that nuclear power is politically dead in the United States. This makes the research and development of alternative energy and carbon capture and storage that much more important and urgent. It also means that environmentalists who have either reluctantly or enthusiastically embraced nuclear power as a form of carbon free energy should move on to other solutions. The catastrophe in Japan will not soon be forgotten, and it will shape the politics of nuclear power plant siting for decades.
This analysis is based on a few fundamental facts of American political structure. Despite the strength of our national government, this remains a federal system of divided power. States retain sovereignty, and we have a deeply rooted tradition of local control of land use. Our national elected leaders pay a great deal of attention to geography and to opinion leaders at the community level. Presidents are elected by an Electoral College, with members selected by states. Presidents are not elected by a majority vote of the American public (ask Al Gore about that). Our legislators must pay a great deal of attention to the parochial interests of their constituents. Take for example the issue of nuclear waste. Despite billions of federal dollars spent to develop and complete a nuclear waste repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the Nevada delegation to the U.S. Congress, especially Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, have effectively vetoed its operation.
The “Not-in-my Backyard” (NIMBY) syndrome is not a passing fad in American politics; it is a central element of land use politics in communities throughout this country. While it is true that the definition of a noxious facility varies from place to place, no one doubts the ability of an American locality to veto a land use they do not like. In New York City we have an extreme version of NIMBY where we even have trouble siting big box retailers. Most places are happy to allow Wal-Mart, but even before last week, few communities were interested in hosting a nuclear power plant. The images of destruction and danger from the nuclear disaster in Japan will dominate the local politics of nuclear power plant siting for a generation. The images of earthquake and tsunami damage will be combined with the nuclear accident and form a single image in the public’s mindset about nuclear power.
While I accepted the argument that nuclear power might be necessary and could be made less risky, I have always been troubled by the extreme toxicity of nuclear fuel and waste. As a student of organizational management, I tend to assume “Murphy’s Law” when it comes to human beings running complex organizations or technologies: if it can go wrong it will go wrong. But my view of the future of U.S. nuclear politics has nothing to do with my personal concerns about nuclear power. The fundamental problem with nuclear power is that after the recent events in Japan, no community in the United States will permit a nuclear plant to be built nearby. Additionally, some of the nuclear power plants already in operation will be under increasing pressure to close.
The strength of anti-nuclear power politics should not be underestimated. Here in New York, people on Long Island are still paying off $3.3 billion in debt for a nuclear power plant called Shoreham that, like the Yucca Mountain repository, was completed but never opened. Governor Andrew Cuomo has already started to move against re-licensing the nuclear power plant at Indian Point, located about 30 miles north of New York City.
With the demise of nuclear power in the United States, we exacerbate the problem of meeting our growing energy needs while reducing the release of greenhouse gasses into the environment. How can we solve these problems without nuclear power? My suggestion is that we focus on the development of distributed, rather than centralized, generation of electricity and of smart grid technology to make better use of the energy we generate. Increased energy efficiency in our buildings and technology, carbon capture and storage, and solar R & D will all be needed. I think that we need to move away from our reliance on large, centralized energy generation facilities. We need to focus federal funding on energy R & D rather than on subsidizing politically infeasible nuclear power.
Some might argue that nuclear technology is here now and these other technologies are still under development. That is true, and we need to figure out a way to develop and commercialize decentralized electric power generation. Perhaps we should look to other models of technological development and diffusion that we have seen in recent years. The best example I can think of is the cell phone. According to the International Telecommunication Union, there are over five billion cell phones in the world. Twenty years ago, this technology was barely in use. Most kids today cannot imagine life without the internet and cell phones. These very decentralized technological tools are now in everyone’s pocket and have changed the way we live. They demonstrate how quickly new technologies can take root in the modern interconnected global economy. Of equal importance, they rely on networks that could serve as a technical and business model for the distribution of electricity in the not too distant future.
Since I’m a political scientist, I have a lot more confidence in my political analysis than in my ability to forecast technological development. I am quite certain that until and unless we start shutting off lights all over America, we will not see any new nuclear power plants sited in this country. On the other hand, I don’t really know if alternative energy technologies will be developed and if they will be able to compete with fossil fuels. But if our goal is to be pragmatic and develop a carbon-free energy system, it time to drop nuclear power from the equation.