Drawing the Right Lessons From Fukushima

01/26/2012 04:36 pm ET | Updated Mar 27, 2012

As we approach the March 11th anniversary of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, one focus in this country has been the impact of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and its implications for nuclear energy facilities in the United States. Watching the coverage of the tsunami's impact on the Fukushima plant was undeniably frightening, and some now have concluded that nuclear energy is just too risky for use in the United States. We believe that the opposite is true: that it is far too risky for the U.S. not to keep nuclear energy as a significant part of our electric power mix.

No one disputes that the damage inflicted on Fukushima by the combined power of an earthquake and a 50-foot tsunami raised legitimate questions about safety and regulatory oversight, not just in Japan, but around the world. Those questions must be addressed, and that process is well underway in the United States. We must make sure that the lessons learned from Fukushima are applied to make other nuclear plants even more secure against extreme events.

But the fact is that nuclear energy has been proven to be safe, and it has posed far less of a threat to public health than coal, the primary energy source for producing electricity throughout the world. In choosing sources for electricity production, at least until renewables like wind and solar reach the scale and reliability of baseload power sources like coal, nuclear and natural gas (which will take decades), the most important question is relative risk. And the relative risk of nuclear energy is very low.

Let's start with the most extreme measure of risk -- fatalities. Here nuclear's number is pretty easy to remember: zero. That is the death toll from the worst American nuclear energy accident in history, at the Three Mile Island plant in 1979 (where the injury total was also zero), as well as every other radiological incident at American nuclear plants in the entire history of our civilian nuclear energy program. No one has ever been killed by a radiation release from a nuclear plant in an OECD country. So far, no one has died from the nuclear accident at Fukushima. (The only fatal nuclear energy accident in history was at Chernobyl in 1986, but that was a direct result of the shoddy Soviet plant design, bad training, and extreme human error.)

By contrast, last year alone, 21 American coal miners died extracting coal to produce electricity -- and that was a good year for the industry. Nearly 50 coal miners died in 2010. And of course, coal's toll goes well beyond the risk to miners. The negative health effects on all Americans, especially children, from emissions from coal-fired energy plants have been well documented. Pollution from such plants kills an estimated 13,000 Americans every year.

Another element of risk is global warming. Here as well, nuclear energy's number is the same memorable zero; nuclear emits no greenhouse gases. By contrast, coal is the most greenhouse gas-intensive of the major electricity generation sources in the U.S. We believe it's vital that we switch away from coal to lower carbon emitting baseload sources, including nuclear.

Finally, we must consider the risk to our economic future. America's electricity needs are forecast to grow 24 percent by 2035. Electricity demand is growing everywhere, and it is exploding in places like China and India. The U.S. developed the world's first nuclear energy technology, and we could dominate this newly emerging global market once again, but only if we act now to rebuild our nuclear infrastructure.

And yet today, the U.S. industry is at a crossroads.

Some signs are hopeful. As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission works through its regulatory response to Fukushima, the agency is poised to approve the construction of four new reactors -- two each in South Carolina and Georgia. That decision could come as soon as this month.

And while no one talks much about it, President Obama and his Republican challengers generally agree that nuclear energy, which supplies about 20 percent of the electricity used by Americans, should continue to play a major role in the U.S. energy portfolio.

But the "nuclear renaissance," a large-scale effort to construct dozens of new plants, has slowed in the last few years. Competing power sources, especially natural gas, have dropped in price recently, and government loan guarantees, which are vital for the construction of new plants, have been slow to materialize.

To get the renaissance fully back on track, the nuclear industry must have clear, stable and long-term government policies to tap the full potential of nuclear energy. That means that as we think about nuclear energy on the anniversary of Fukushima, we make sure that we are thinking about risk accurately and fully. If we do, we think a consensus can emerge behind a national energy policy that actively encourages the use of nuclear energy to provide safe, emissions-free electricity that helps drive economic growth.