Nuclear economyThe problem nuclear power generation faces: wary investors

Published 16 March 2011

The Japanese disaster, in which four nuclear reactors were damaged, is important for the future of nuclear power generation not because it demonstrated the inherent risks of nuclear power (so far there are no reported death attributed to the damaged reactors); rather, the problem of nuclear power is the reluctance of investors to invest in it; experts say it was clear that the situation in Japan would further erode enthusiasm and may even affect applications for continued use of existing plants

Kevin Drum writes in Mother Jones that the damage suffered by four nuclear reactors in Japan has focused attention on what many perceive as the inherent risk involved in operating such reactors. He says that the safety of nuclear plants is an important issue, but that, at least so far, the Japanese disaster does not offer support for the argument that operating nuclear reactors is inherently riskier than producing energy by other means.

He approvingly quotes Matt Iglesias who wrote:

We’re currently told that the death toll in Japan will be at least 10,000 people of whom approximately zero seem to have perished in nuclear accidents. What happens when a tsunami hits an offshore drilling platform or a natural gas pipeline? What happens to a coal mine in an earthquake? How much environmental damage is playing out in Japan right now because of gasoline from cars pushed around? The main lesson is “try not to put critical infrastructure near a fault line” but Japan is an earthquakey country, so what are they really supposed to do about this?

There is rather a deeper problem nuclear power faces – and the Japanese disaster has exacerbated this problem: investors are reluctant to invest in nuclear power generation. The Japanese disaster may well increase this reluctance (see the Los Angeles Times’s “Japan’s crisis may have already derailed ‘nuclear renaissance’”).

Iglesias agrees:

Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner, said Saturday that most of those proposed projects were not viable even before the Japanese crisis because private investors were unwilling to fund them, even with government subsidies.

Experts said it was clear that the situation in Japan would further erode enthusiasm and may even affect applications for continued use of existing plants, such as the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in northern San Diego County.

The reason there have been no new nuclear power plants ordered over the last 30 years is the economics of the industry,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Wall Street has been allergic to any investment in nuclear power in the United States.”