The change in nuclear's fortunes is staggering, given that the U.S. is the world's largest producer of nuclear power, according to the World Nuclear Association. The country's 104 reactors account for more than 30 percent of nuclear electricity generation worldwide.
Which to me reads as, “it’s amazing nuclear energy is so successful given what a rank failure it is.” Downright staggering, in fact.
The reversal of fortune, which has reared up is one article or another at least once a month since the Fukushima Daiichi accident, has always been about 80 percent rhetorical, essentially a way to render nuclear energy irrelevant even as it refuses to actually be irrelevant.
It can take a lot of forms, but variations on this one are frequent enough to note:
Decreased consumption, increased energy efficiency, wind and solar, with back up from geothermal, hydropower, and biomass will get us to zero coal, zero nuclear, minimal carbon dioxide.
Which sounds so very, very good, doesn’t it? In reality, though, it is the solution of a resource-wealthy people in a rich, industrialized country. It makes one feel justified in one’s choices, in the way choosing a salad instead of a pastrami sandwich for lunch can make one feel justified – because one has those choices. It gives a perceived deprivation a tang of the saintly.
But that’s not true in much of the world, where deprivation – of energy and a lot else – is endemic. And it won’t really work. We can get to “minimal carbon dioxide” but not through feel-good solutions alone. And the rest of the world must be allowed to electrify and industrialize – the developed world can’t choose now to shut down progress in the developing world (and couldn’t succeed at doing so anyhow.)
Really, a better way to trace the fortunes of nuclear energy is to depend on what is simply true – which is often pretty upbeat:
Exelon Generation said Wednesday that it has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for 20-year license extensions at its Byron and Braidwood generating stations, which would allow the plants to operate into the middle of the century.
You’ll notice that Exelon doesn’t seem too staggered by nuclear energy’s reversal of fortune.
A recent poll of 2,034 people in the UK showed broad overall support for new nuclear plants, with more people in favor of public subsidies for reactor development than opposed to them.
And okay, there’s this too:
Hundreds of anti-nuke protesters rallied in the Taiwanese capital Taipei calling to vote down a referendum bill and terminate the launch of the island’s fourth nuclear power plant, amid mounting concerns since the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
So not always upbeat. But not, in aggregate, indicating a slide into irrelevance.
Maybe we should just not see energy choices as having reversible fortunes, like champion dogs at the dog race. Some days are better than others, but most of them are pretty similar and not especially grim.