Explosions. Radiation. Evacuations. More than 30 years after Three Mile Island, the unfolding crisis in Japan has brought back some of the worst nightmares surrounding nuclear power — and restarted a major debate about the merits and the drawbacks of this energy source. Does nuclear energy offer a path away from carbon-based fuels? Or are nuclear power plants too big a threat? It's time to separate myth from reality.
1. The biggest problem with nuclear energy is safety.
Safety is certainly a critical issue, as the tragedy in Japan is making clear. But for years, the the biggest challenge to sustainable nuclear energy hasn't been safety, but cost.
In the United States, new nuclear construction was already slowing down even before the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979; the disaster merely sealed its fate. The last nuclear power plant to come online started delivering power in 1996 — but its construction began in 1972. Today, nuclear power remains considerably more expensive than coal- or gas-fired electricity, mainly because nuclear plants are so expensive to build. Estimates are slippery, but a plant can cost well north of $5 billion. A 2009 MIT study estimated that the cost of producing nuclear energy (including construction, maintenance and fuel) was about 30 percent higher than that of coal or gas.
Of course, cost and safety aren't unrelated. Concerns about safety lead to extensive regulatory approval processes and add uncertainty to plant developers' calculations — both of which boost the price of financing new nuclear plants. It's not clear how much these construction costs would fall if safety fears subsided and the financing became cheaper — and after the Fukushima catastrophe, we're unlikely to find out.