US & Canada

Japan earthquake: Impact on US nuclear energy future?

Protesters in Germany
Image caption The Japanese disaster has mobilised anti-nuclear activists around the world

The unfolding disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant has raised questions about the viability of American's so-called "nuclear renaissance". But the BBC's Katie Connolly in Washington questions whether America's nuclear future was overstated to begin with.

In recent years, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that any climate or energy legislation must include nuclear power as a key part of America's long-term energy equation.

Republicans including Senator John McCain, who was once a leader on climate issues in the senate, have said they are unwilling to consider a climate bill that doesn't include nuclear.

As a presidential candidate, Mr McCain called for building an additional 45 nuclear plants in America.

Even some environmentalists begrudgingly accepted that nuclear power could be part of America's clean energy future.

When the House of Representatives passed the landmark Waxman-Markey climate bill in 2009 - a bill which was not taken up by the senate - the inclusion of a clean energy bank to provide financial backing for new energy production, including nuclear, was a critical sweetener to win support from nuclear advocates.

Without it, the bill may not have passed.

President Barack Obama called for "a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants" in his 2010 State of the Union address and pledged to triple US nuclear investment.

Following the Japanese quake and tsunami, the Obama administration restated its support, with spokesman Jay Carney telling reporters that nuclear "remains a part of the president's overall energy plan".

But even if all of the administration's promises to fund nuclear plants are realised, that's unlikely to fundamentally reorient America's energy sector around nuclear power.

"There wasn't going to be a substantial increase in the US even before this accident, at least in the next decade," Tom Cochran, a senior scientist and nuclear expert, at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) told the BBC.

Private sector jitters

Government support for new US nuclear facilities comes mostly in the form of loan guarantees, without which very little nuclear capacity is likely to be built.

Nuclear plants are incredibly costly and slow to construct. Even in the newly expedited regulatory environment in the US, it takes at least 10-12 years for a nuclear plant to be licensed, built and ready to produce.

That cost and time combination makes for risky investments - the kind that the private sector is reluctant to invest in without government backing.

At present, the US government has $18.5 bn (£11.4 bn) of nuclear loan guarantees on the books. Mr Obama has proposed an additional $36 bn (£22 bn).

Image caption Government loan guarantees could provide backing for 4-7 new plants

That $54.5 bn (£33.7 bn) would underwrite the construction of 4 to 7 new plants, assuming that they come in on budget. None of them would come online until after 2020 at the earliest.

Nuclear advocates hope these government-sponsored projects will demonstrate to the private sector that nuclear is a viable investment, prompting renewed interest from investors.

But that thinking depends on the projects coming in on time and on budget - a relatively unlikely proposition for an undertaking as large and complex as nuclear power.

Meanwhile, many in the environmental community believe that in the time it takes to build new nuclear facilities, other alternative energy sources will become more attractive.

One legislative staffer told the BBC that each time the proposals for new plants - like those planned for South Carolina, Georgia and Texas - are evaluated, the costs go up.

At the same time, costs for wind and solar facilities - which can take as little as three years to construct - are decreasing.

John Rowe, the CEO of America's largest nuclear producer Exelon, has said his firm is reluctant to invest in new nuclear plants because they are increasingly cost prohibitive when compared to natural gas, which is relatively cheap.

"The nuclear industry was in trouble in the US long before last week's earthquake and tsunami," said Ellen Vancko of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"Spiralling construction cost estimates, declining energy demand, low natural gas costs and the failure to put a price on carbon already spelled trouble for this industry."

Mr Cochran of the NRDC says that by his estimate, over the years 130 proposed nuclear plants have been cancelled at some point during the planning, licensing and construction process. That's more than the total number of plants that have ever been built in the US.

It doesn't bode well for the future of new plants, particularly now that increased attention will be paid to nuclear safety, perhaps adding new hurdles for proposed plants.

The Japan effect

It's too early to tell whether the events in Japan have jeopardized the nuclear loan guarantee programme.

Some Capitol Hill insiders privately admit that its deeply unlikely that the government will walk away from it.

Nuclear power is, after all, a political necessity to achieve bipartisan support for other energy initiatives, and the pro-nuclear lobby is powerful and well-resourced.

Others, like Damon Moglen from Friends of the Earth, think that the events in Japan will be a tipping point.

He notes the comments of Senators Joe Lieberman and Chuck Schumer on Sunday urging caution when it comes to additional nuclear plants.

Mr Lieberman called for Congress to "put the brakes" on building nuclear capacity until the lessons from Japan can be assessed and absorbed.

"We've already seen over the weekend what a significant change is already taking place," Mr Moglan said. "It is pretty clear that loan guarantees, subsidies to the nuclear industry to be build new nuclear plants, are already in question."

Robert Alvarez, a nuclear expert at the Institute for Policy Studies, sees the current anti-government, anti-spending mood in Washington also working against the momentum on nuclear power.

"Given the combination of what is transpiring in Japan and the tremendous zeal, especially by the Tea Party element of the Republican party, to make deep cuts in the budget, I think the prospects for [the nuclear] loan guarantees are very dim."

But the most lasting impact of Japan is likely to be on America's existing nuclear facilities.

Political pressure for more stringent oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Committee, America's nuclear authority, is already mounting.

Democrats Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, who authored the 2009 climate bill, are calling for an investigation and hearings into the safety and preparedness of America's nuclear plants, 23 of which have similar designs to the Fukushima plant.