The ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan threatens not only the local population and environment, and perhaps places farther away, but also threatens conventional plans to mitigate carbon emissions in response to global warming. Despite safety and cost concerns, the emissions-free baseload electricity provided by nuclear power is an essential component of any credible plan to shift the world economy away from fossil fuels. In recent years there has been talk of a “nuclear renaissance” driven by improved reactor designs, generous loan guarantees, streamlined licensing and regulatory procedures, growing recognition of the climate benefits of nuclear energy, and the absence of serious nuclear incidents since Chernobyl in 1986. This renewed push for nuclear power may be stopped or even reversed by the damage and possible meltdown at Fukushima Dai-ichi.
In the US, safety concerns now dominate the nuclear debate, and many government and corporate leaders have begun to reconsider new and proposed investments in the nuclear industry. Chinese authorities have announced plans to review construction of 77 new nuclear reactors. Germany, the country perhaps least friendly toward nuclear power, is set to backtrack on a 2010 decision to extend the lives of seven aging reactors. France, which is among the strongest proponents of nuclear power, is unique in viewing the crisis in Japan as a potential commercial opportunity for its domestic nuclear firms.
Movement away from nuclear power cannot be offset by increases in other forms of zero-emissions generation—renewables such as wind and solar are characterized by technical and performance constraints, available hydropower resources are dwindling, and energy efficiency faces inherent limitations in its capacity to squeeze out additional savings. Greater reliance on natural gas is an improvement over coal, but still results in significant carbon emissions. The remaining strategy to fight climate change is geoengineering, making it the only tool available to take up the slack left by a fading nuclear industry in any concerted effort to stabilize the climate. Geoengineering, in particular CDR, is therefore likely to play an even larger role in future climate policy following the hydra-headed disaster in Japan.