Nuclear power survives on empty promises and false hopes fed by our inability to effectively evaluate risk. We are lulled by long periods of stability and safe operation, and then seem shocked in the face of catastrophe that could have and should have been anticipated. If the costs of just one major disaster were embedded in the price of electricity, the industry would not be even close to economically viable; only massive taxpayer subsidies keep nuclear power alive. The costs of sustaining nuclear power are too great for society to bear; so why is it still with us? Beyond the obvious, such as effective lobbying, nuclear plants are still online today because society is extraordinarily weak in its ability to assess and manage risks that have a low probability of happening (or that may occur in the distant future), but have catastrophic impact when they do.
The human brain is a marvel of nature, giving us astonishing capabilities while consuming the energy equivalent of nothing more than a 100 watt bulb. This incredible efficiency in computing power is achieved in part because the brain excels at taking shortcuts. We assume certain aspects of our environment to avoid wasting metabolic energy or time on unnecessary calculations or attention. For example we are very good at perceiving motion, but tend to ignore things at rest. Our assumptions about the physical world are generally a good approximation of nature and serve us well (better in the short-term than out further in time), but they are not perfect; optical illusions exploit our perceptual flaws.
With our innate assumptions about how nature works, we excel at assigning cause to effect as we interact with our environment. We learn quickly that putting our hand in a flame hurts or that eating rotten fruit makes us sick. So too is the human brain extraordinarily adept at posing questions about the natural world; our curiosity leads to innovation and enhanced chances for survival. The flipside is that we abhor the concept of leaving any questions unanswered. We are unable to turn off this instinct to see patterns and to discern effect from cause when confronted with the unknown. We demand that there be a pattern, that there be cause and effect, and that there be an answer, even when none exist. Generally, this is harmless, like seeing animal shapes in clouds or concluding that your thoughts of grandma caused her to call you.
Unfortunately, our perceptual shortcuts and flawed perception are not always so benign. As amazing as our gray matter may be, we are simply not wired well to evaluate anything but the most immediate risks from the most obvious threats. With our hard-wired assumptions about our physical world, humans are particularly bad at assessing and managing low-chance-high-consequence risks. The most obvious example is an asteroid hit, but this small-chance-big-impact can come too in less dramatic form: pandemic flu, 100-year flood, the emergence of bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics, or a chemical weapons terrorist attack in a big city. We tend to ignore or dismiss these "outliers" in our short- and long-term planning; and that can and has led to catastrophes.
Nowhere is our poor ability to address low-probability-high-impact events more evident than in society's approach to nuclear power. Operators of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was severely damaged the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, initially received a $12.8 billion bailout from the government to help contain the disaster. Japan announced this week an additional $500 million to further stabilize the continuing contamination. We are witnessing acts of desperation: building a "frozen wall" underground to prevent a flood of groundwater from contacting the contaminated buildings. This has never been tried on such a vast scale or for the decades needed here, and the scheme requires electricity to work; a problem given the number of blackouts suffered by the power plant. We just learned that 300 tons of water contaminated with radioactive strontium drained into the sea from a faulty tank. There are now 430,000 tons of contaminated water being held at the site, increasing at rate of 400 tons per day.
None of these infrastructure problems cover the tremendous human and economic costs of forced evacuations of more than 160,000 people; the equivalent of a small city evacuated, never to be occupied again, with land permanently lost to high levels of radiation. Imagine abandoning forever Madison, WI, or Akron, OH, because of radiation contamination. Then too are the exorbitant costs of remediation where that is even possible, and long-term health costs of radioactive releases to the air. Experts estimate that the total cost of the accident will be nearly $300 billion.
Just one such event calls into question the economic viability of the nuclear industry. Here we see a deep irony. Those who wholeheartedly support nuclear energy are often the same folks who want a small government to get out of the way of business, allowing the magic of the market to work its glory. And yet the moment we have a Chernobyl or Fukushima, these very people expect the government, and taxpayers, to bail out the industry.
And this is why nuclear energy is not viable and never will be; low probability high consequence risk. While bad events are rare, when they happen, the political, economic and human costs are much too high for society to absorb, even amortized over long periods of stability. And this does not include the problem of disposing of nuclear waste or the life cycle costs of decommissioning a spent plant. Nuclear energy sounds good, but only if most of the true costs are externalized. Trapping the true cost of nuclear energy in the price of electricity would render the industry useless.
Yes, nuclear energy offers, at least in theory, powerful benefits. The greatest incentive to revive the industry is climate change; nuclear power plants emit no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. About one-fifth of our total electrical output in the United States is from 104 nuclear plants (which put out about 800 billion kWh in 2008). The painful and costly lessons learned from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have yielded a good safety record since... up to Fukushima. Other benefits include potentially unlimited energy, energy independence, and the positive geopolitical implications of weaning ourselves from foreign oil.
The allure of nuclear power is strong, but based on false premise. Insurmountable technical and economic problems ensure the industry will never be viable, even beyond the already sufficiently catastrophic issue of core melt or another Fukushima disaster. We currently have no good way to treat and dispose of highly toxic and dangerous nuclear waste. Other problems beyond those already cited include the high cost of plant construction (independent of regulatory demands), the potential of creating raw materials from which nuclear bombs could be made, risks of transporting nuclear waste from power plants to storage facilities, and the low but not zero probability of radioactive releases and contamination (not caused by meltdown). We also need to consider that a good portion of the emissions benefits of nuclear power compared to fossil fuel use could be realized by investments in renewable green technologies like wind, solar and geothermal, all of which avoid the problems of nuclear waste.
Note too that in the United States no nuclear power plants have been ordered (and not subsequently cancelled) since 1978, and the last one to go online was in 1995. Proponents of nuclear energy will blame this dearth of construction on regulatory constraints and hostile politicians. The reality is that nuclear energy is not economically viable without government support.
The bottom line is that nuclear power has great potential in theory, but not in reality. Japan reminds us that while we generally now view nuclear energy as relatively safe, the occasional outlier kills the industry. The inherent costs of an accident are too high to absorb. Imagine the cost of electricity if Japanese consumers paid the price of Fukushima in their utility bill. Unfortunately, the industry survives because we fail to evaluate properly low-probably high-consequence events. Nuclear power is with us only because we have inherent flaws in our ability to evaluate risk. That inherent imperfection is blinding us to the simple reality that nuclear power is dead; we just don't see it yet.