By Kathy Kemper
The Hill’s Pundits Blog
In light of the recent Japanese nuclear accident caused by one of the largest earthquakes the country had experienced in more than 300 years, I reflect on the future of nuclear power and how public perception has certainly been affected. These events are devastating, there is no doubt. It might, however, be an opportune time for us to step back and look at recent events objectively. An initial knee-jerk reaction is to point to this accident as a confirmation that nuclear energy is dangerous and causes dramatic public harm. However, giving up on nuclear energy would be hasty, short-sighted and counterproductive.
Our current energy supply and consumption trends are unsustainable in the long term. We live in a word increasingly constrained by multiple objectives competing for finite resources (time, money, technology, availability, etc.). Countries are playing a balancing act between reducing greenhouse gas emissions, addressing climate change concerns, achieving energy security by ensuring an adequate, reliable and safe supply shielded from volatile prices and ensuring economic growth. While there is certainly no silver bullet, nuclear energy does indeed play a critical role in bridging these objectives.
Nuclear energy is a mature, low-carbon, relatively cheap source of energy, one with the potential to bring about not only environmental but economic and social benefit as well. Indeed, successful nuclear programs rely on a highly skilled, technical workforce educated in the sciences and engineering fields. Japan itself emerged as one of the largest economies in the world.
Emerging economies have also demonstrated tremendous progress in breaking down the access barriers to technological advancements, especially in the area of energy. Fifty years of acquired know-how and experience are making their way across continents. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that more than two-thirds of the future nuclear capacity coming online in the next few years will occur in emerging economies such as China, Russia, India and Brazil. This, in itself, has tremendous implications.
The train is not stopping — emerging markets are realizing the economic, social and environmental benefits a nuclear program can bring about, and many developing countries are either starting nuclear programs or scaling up existing ones. What becomes incumbent is to ensure that nuclear programs are up to par with best practices, following internationally recognized quality and safety standards. Public engagement is also key.
As global citizens, we need to draw upon the lessons learned, best practices and knowledge acquired over more than 50 years of experience and leverage this know-how to improve existing nuclear programs and ensure that new ones are built on a solid foundation of the highest level of expertise, quality, safety and transparency. We need to be engaged in the policy and decisionmaking and advocate for the importance of a diversified energy mix in which safe nuclear energy is a vital component. Civility is what we, as global citizens, need to demonstrate — civility in realizing what’s best for our “global community,” in recognizing that we all are stakeholders, that we must be engaged.
Yes, the consequences of disasters are huge, but with proper measures in place, the potential to enhance the role of nuclear power in ensuring a sustainable future is even more considerable.
We should look at the events in Japan with a renewed outlook, one of hope that this accident will awaken us in realizing the need for even further collaboration and increased cooperation among nations, bringing about new global institutions to establish a common ground, share knowledge and explore innovative solutions to one of the world’s most challenging problems.