07/06/2012 06:40 pm ET Updated Sep 05, 2012

The Nuclear Power Conundrum

Are fossil fuels the retro fallback option for a nuclear-free future?

Nuclear power's back in the news. Last month the Japanese government reversed its post-Fukushima decision to become nuclear-free, and this week the Kansai Electric Power restarted the No. 3 nuclear unit at its Ohi plant in Fukui in the western part of the country.

Ironically, a report released on Thursday by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission concluded that last year's accident in northeastern Japan at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) was "profoundly a man-made disaster -- that could and should have been foreseen and prevented."

While the official story has been that the accident was caused by the "once-in-a-millennium" tsunami, the report concludes that damage resulting from the earthquake (before the tsunami struck) could have been liable as well.

Earthquakes are a fairly common occurrence in Japan, and so, if the earthquake was indeed the cause of the accident, it would call into question the safety of much of Japan's nuclear fleet, including, presumably, the reactors at the Ohi plant.

The commission was also quite critical of the response by Tepco and the government to unfolding events, and blamed "collusion" between the company, the government, and the plant operator and the country's "reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority" as the root cause of the accident.

To be fair, it should be pointed out that this latest report is not the first to be issued about the Fukushima accident (and probably won't be the last), but none of them so far as I can tell has implicated the earthquake (or the Japanese culture), and it's unlikely that this most recent study will settle the matter. (For more information see here and here.)

California Has Its Own Nuclear Woes

Meanwhile, state-side, another nuclear mini-drama is being played out. The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, located in the very populous corridor between Los Angeles and San Diego, has been shuttered since January after it was discovered that damage to the steam tubes that carry radioactive water (caused by a computer modeling error and a flawed generator design) had led to a small leak of radioactive steam. A spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission described the leaks as "unprecedented," and the plant will remain offline indefinitely until officials of Southern California Edison, the plant's operator, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission deem it safe to restart.

While anti-nukes have used the incident as a rallying point to keep San Onofre closed for good (as these advocacy sites here and here illustrate), officials from the California Independent System Operator, charged with keeping electrons flowing through the California grid, have had to scramble to devise a contingency plan [pdf] to keep the lights on and the air conditioning running as California enters the hot part of the summer season. (Read more on the San Onofre closure.)

The Fossil Fuel Trade-Off

What to do when your favorite nuclear plant gets shut down? One option would be to just do without. Another option, and the one that Japan and California have chosen, is to replace the lost nuclear power with another source. And what do you suppose the source of choice is? Fossil fuels of course.

The shutdown of Japan's nuclear power plants corresponded with a more than doubling in the consumption of fuel oil and crude oil (primarily for electrical generation) in January 2012 compared to January 2011. There was also a 27 percent increase in liquid natural gas usage, although coal usage went down by eight percent. This, despite the fact that overall energy usage in Japan dropped sharply since the disaster. Overall, Japan's carbon dioxide emissions for 2011 increased by about 2.4 percent.

The cost of all that extra fossil fuels has been huge. For the first time in decades Japan has experienced a trade deficit. The economic damage caused by the shutdown of Japan's nuclear fleet is perhaps an explanation for why the prime minister has decided to take a baby step back toward nuclear power with the restarting of the Ohi plant.

California's experience with the loss of San Onofre is like a miniature version of Japan's. Since the San Onofre shut down, two retired natural gas units at  Huntington Beach [pdf] have been called back into service.

Torn Between Two Power Sources?

So what to do if you are uneasy about nuclear power and worried about climate change? Many experts opine that you would be foolish to think we could immediately do away with both -- you've only got two options: choose nuclear or choose fossil fuels. As Per Peterson, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told the New York Times: "We are really faced with a choice, at least in the next decade. Do we turn off nuclear plants first, or do we turn off coal plants first? You have to do one or the other."

Is he right? Are we caught between a rock and a hard place, or is the either-or proposition a false choice?

Crossposted with TheGreenGrok. | Follow us on Facebook.