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Japan’s stricken nuclear power plant at Fukushima is at last approaching stable, if still serious, condition. The struggles the Japanese have faced there, on top of the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit in quick succession less than two weeks ago, provide three important political lessons for President Obama on the issue of energy policy.
First, the president needs to make clear where America’s electricity is going to come from and why. His current energy plan relies on a phase-out of coal-fired power to be replaced with about 100 new nuclear plants. Coal is to be phased out because the administration says it contributes to global warming. Nuclear power does not, so case closed. However, now people are scared about the potential dangers from nuclear plants (despite the highly unusual circumstances at Fukushima) probably more than those from potential global warming. What does this mean for the president’s energy policy?
The president and his energy secretary, Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, have to make the case for nuclear now, with all the authority they can muster. Without this vigorous defense of nuclear, the Obama energy plan will have a massive hole at its core - one that cannot be filled by wind and solar power any more than it can be filled by fairy dust. The obvious answer is for the administration to stop its war on coal, but that is unlikely. The only other plausible choice is natural gas, derived by hydraulic fracturing - a procedure that environmentalists are already trying to ban. If they want to keep their plan going in any workable form, the president and Mr. Chu need to tell Americans unequivocally where their future power is going to come from, and push back against ideological environmentalists who are trying to ban practical sources of energy.
Second, the president must reinstate funding for Nevada’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility and demand that Congress go along. About half of the problems experienced in Fukushima derive from problems with the on-site storage of spent fuel. The federal government was supposed to start accepting responsibility for spent fuel storage from operators in 1998. Thirteen years later, we are still waiting and operators are continuing to store fuel on-site, thanks to opposition from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and others.
Of the nation’s 104 nuclear plants, 61 have used up all their space for storing fuel, which is piling up at the rate of 2,500 tons a year. Yucca Mountain provides a safe option for geologic disposal of that waste, which is far too dangerous to store in makeshift containers on site, as Fukushima has shown. Mr. Obama must display bold leadership and override the objections of Mr. Reid and his cronies. Otherwise, if a similar fuel-storage accident ever befalls an American plant, this president will bear a large part of the blame.
Third and finally, the president must start his building program now, by significantly reducing the amount of time needed to clear regulatory hurdles. Most of the Fukushima plant’s problems resulted from an outdated design. America has not finished a new nuclear power plant since 1996, but that was a plant for which construction began in 1973. All of our nuclear plants, to put it bluntly, are past their sell-by date.
We need to replace many of them quickly with safer, more modern designs. That will require speeding up the regulatory process for approving new plants. Think of it this way: If you’re driving a deathtrap of a car and decide to buy a new, state-of-the-art SUV, would you find it safer for the DMV to spend weeks inspecting your new car or to get it right away?
All three of these courses of action will require political courage and leadership from the president. He will need to disappoint his supporters in the environmental movement, even as they eagerly await a major fairy dust breakthrough, which they’re sure is just around the corner.
Given the president’s record to date, I’m not hopeful. Yet Japan’s nuclear accident shows that our energy future requires us to face harsh realities and make hard choices. Whether Mr. Obama learns anything from Japan’s travails will prove a major test for his presidency.