The last four weeks' events at the Fuskushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant have distilled into two streams of necessary information: the first, technological and engineering response, are not reviewed in this note. Commentary and news feeds have addressed the issues admirably. The second, international legal and policy response, became important with French President Sarkozy's visit to Japan just over a week ago.
President Sarkozy, currently the Group of 20 (G20) chairman, called for "international safety norms," and requested a meeting in May to fix new norms in the wake of the crisis. Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan agreed. Their comments illustrate a sort of disconnect in the way nuclear safety is managed globally. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) makes safety recommendations and manages international nuclear diplomacy, but it has no enforcement power. Each country has sovereign regulations, and separate enforcement powers. In Japan, Sarkozy asserted that such parochialism cannot support the continued global need for nuclear energy. In calling for an international review of the causes, response, and long term effects of the Fukushima crisis, Sarkozy is acknowledging that nuclear energy policy has global reach.
In contrast, Gregory B. Jaczko, Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC) and the State Department, did no favors to anyone during the first week of the crisis when they overreacted and declared a 50-mile exclusion, or "no-go," zone for Americans near the Dai-ichi facility. Chairman Jaczko illustrated the parochialism inherent in global energy policy, particularly in the face of Japan's exclusion zone of 12 miles. He also told Congress that there were "serious problems" cooling the reactors and that he believed workers would be exposed to potentially lethal doses of radiation. His statements, and a good dose of hyperbole from media outlets, helped trigger a run on potassium iodine tablets on the west coast. It doesn't help for the Chairman of this nation's nuclear regulatory body to yell "fire" while the President and the Secretary of Energy are urging calm.
We have yet to see a coordinated administration reaction to the events playing out at the Fukushima plant. The United States must produce a measured, careful response to the international issues emerging from Japan's handling of the Dai-ichi accident and subsequent cleanup. Long term, this response must include a coherent national energy policy. Currently, the United States does not have one. Instead we rely on a market-based mix of fossil fuels (69%), renewable energy (11%), and nuclear energy (20%). This mix is the result of long term industrial reliance on cheap fossil fuel and the difficulty of financing nuclear plants with passive designs that can function under the same conditions that destroyed the Dai-ichi plant. However, as the energy needs of the country increase, a more consistent mix is necessary.
To highlight this critical policy need, James Conca and Judith Wright, in a report funded by the Progressive Policy Institute, suggest a starting point for this national energy plan: one-third fossil, one-third nuclear, and one-third renewable energy. Conca and Wright suggest we follow French, Japanese, and Korean models and make new and significant government and private investments in nuclear energy. The United States is already the largest global consumer of nuclear energy. With 104 operating plants, use of nuclear power produces 73 percent of non-carbon electricity in the country. Lack of resources and political will have hampered any effort to scale up the use of nuclear. Even if policy makers wanted to dedicate more resources to nuclear energy development, public misconceptions about nuclear energy and the viability of renewable energy have limited the country's move to a post-carbon economy.
The events at the Dai-ichi plant have been a public policy nightmare here because the United States lacks a consistent energy policy that includes something more than a begrudging reliance on nuclear power. This means the United States needs to overhaul a regulatory procedure that is rife with expensive uncertainties, develop a coherently communicated energy policy, and educate generations of users about the differences between nuclear bombs and nuclear energy. The administration should actively support President Sarkozy's call for an international analysis of nuclear safety protocols. The nuclear industry can also play a part by actively participating in the nuclear debate. Science doesn't always win an emotional debate, and the industry has for the most part kept its mouth shut and tried to let science evangelize for it. A coherent, open discussion of the situation at Dai-ichi and the status of nuclear plants in the United States would go a long way to limit the visceral reaction from much of the general public.
(Author's note: Readers seeking more technical information may review Murray E. Miles's excellent summary of the Fukushima accident, reported by the equally excellent Rod Adams here. It's highly readable and devoid of any pro or con rhetoric.)
Tamar Cerafici is a former affiliate professor of environmental law who currently focuses her legal practice on exploring the environmental and policy implications of developing new nuclear plants. She is the owner of The Cerafici Law Firm.
Suggested Citation: Tamar J. Cerafici, The Fukushima Nuclear Crisis Illustrates the Need for an Energy Policy in the United States, JURIST - Forum, April 10, 2011, ttp://jurist.org/forum/2011/04/Fukushima-illustrates-need-for-policy.php.