Goodbye Nuclear Power — and Hello More Carbon?

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Kimimasa Mayama / EPA

A demonstration in Tokyo celebrating the suspension of Japan's nuclear power plants on May 6, 2012

As the only victim of an atomic bombing, Japan has always reacted ambivalently at best toward nuclear power. This is the country of the hibakusha — the survivors of the American attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, victims of both long-term radiation and social discrimination. It's the nation that gave us Godzilla and countless other fictional manifestations of nuclear shock and awe. But it is also a country that was able to rise from the atomic ashes stronger than it had ever been, building a world-class industrial economy that was powered in part by nuclear energy. By the beginning of 2011, Japan had 54 operational nuclear reactors providing almost 30% of the country's electricity, with government plans on the books to build more than 14 new reactors and raise nuclear's share of the electricity mix to 53% by 2030.

We all know what happened next. The Fukushima meltdown forced the exodus of more than 100,000 people from their homes, overshadowed even the tsunami that had caused it and had killed more than 20,000 people, and spurred fears that Tokyo itself would need to be evacuated. Though it appears now that the disaster wasn't as serious as many experts first believed — with even the Fukushima emergency workers spared dangerous exposure to radiation — the meltdown did reveal a certain rot in Japan's state-sponsored nuclear power industry. One by one, Japan's nuclear reactors were shut down, ostensibly to toughen safety standards, but just as much to reassure a skittish public that no longer trusted nuclear power. Finally, over the weekend, Tomari Nuclear Power Plant's reactor 3 in the northern island of Hokkaido was shut down for maintenance, and for the first time since 1970, Japan was without nuclear power.

Whether the country will stay nuclear-free is up for debate. Most of the plants that have been closed are scheduled to reopen eventually, but in many cities, there's strong local pressure to keep the reactors shuttered for good. Nor is Japan the only country turning away from nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima. Germany responded to the meltdown by announcing plans to phase out nuclear power by 2022, with most of it set to be replaced — in theory, at least — by renewables like wind and solar. Globally, nuclear power is stumbling; the U.S. hasn't built a new atomic plant in decades, despite lavish subsidies, and in 2010 nuclear power provided just 13% of the world's electricity, down from 18% in 1996. Although large developing countries like China and India still have plans to build new atomic plants, nuclear power increasingly looks, as the Economist put it in a recent cover story, like "the god that failed."

You can expect many environmental groups to cheer that news, along with the thousands of protesters who marched through the streets of Tokyo on May 5 to celebrate the shutdown of the last reactor. Mainstream green groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club remain avowedly antinuclear. But we know this: the early closing of nuclear plants in countries like Japan and Germany is bad news for the climate, at least in the short run. Nuclear power remains the only carbon-free, base-load source of electricity, producing far more clean power than wind and solar. (In 2009 nonhydroelectric sources of renewable power supplied considerably less than 1% of global electricity.) Take existing nuclear plants off-line, and at the very least you make the very difficult goal of reducing carbon emissions that much harder.

In Japan, hard-pressed utilities have tried to replace nuclear energy with record amounts of liquefied natural gas and petroleum, which last year hit its highest level of electrical output in 10 years. The populace has pitched in as well, with extreme setsuden or energy-saving measures. But even so, Japan's business community and its government have warned that the country could face serious energy shortages this summer without nuclear power, which could dent the world's third largest economy as it struggles to bounce back from the tsunami. Without nuclear power, Japan is projected to produce an additional 180 million to 210 million tons of carbon emissions this fiscal year compared with 1990, wiping out much of the improvements the country made over the past few years as it worked to meet its carbon-cutting commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. "We must think ahead to the impact on Japan's economy and people's lives if all nuclear reactors stopped," said Yoshito Sengoku, the deputy policy chief of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. "Japan, could, in some sense, be committing mass suicide."

Getting by nuke-free is possible. Germany has already built up a world-leading renewable energy sector, so that country is better prepared for a future without atoms. And even though it's been replacing some of its nuclear energy with natural gas — a fossil fuel, albeit a relatively clean one — last year Germany saw its greenhouse-gas emissions fall 2% compared with 2010. But even as Germany closes its nuclear plants early, it's still building new coal plants, some of which will go to replace that carbon-free atomic power. Supporters say those coal plants were already in the pipeline and are just a speed bump on the way to a 100% green grid, but in the short term, trading nuclear power for coal is a loss for the climate and for the most wicked policy problem in the world: decarbonizing energy.

I'm not writing this to defend nuclear power. We appear to have been really lucky with Fukushima, and the fact that a meltdown could happen in a technologically advanced country like Japan is a chilling thought, especially as new atomic plants spring up in developing countries. More to the point, the citizens of a free country should be able to choose where their electricity comes from, and if the public decides that nuclear power isn't worth the risks — as they have in Germany and perhaps Japan as well — so be it. The antinuclear movement in Japan, in particular, is a triumph of citizen activism in a county in which industry and government have generally been allowed to do whatever they want. But it's telling that it was the often hyped fear of nuclear power more than global warming that energized the public. Because if climate change really was perceived as the biggest environmental threat in the world, people in Tokyo and Berlin would be marching through the streets to keep those nuclear plants open — and end coal power immediately.