Public-Private Partnerships Key to Achieving Nuclear Renaissance

This week the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, established in September 2011 by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, issued a report on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, offering a fascinating look into the period immediately following the tragic earthquake and tsunami that shut down Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant’s cooling system, resulting in a deadly hydrogen explosion.

In Time Magazine’s Global Spin Blog, Krista Mahr writes “There is no shortage of worrying revelations in the report. Among the most frightening is the fact that the government was preparing for the possibility of having to evacuate Tokyo while assuring its millions of residents that everything was ok.” Can you imagine evacuating a city of 12.8 million people? That is equivalent to nearly ten times the population of Manhattan.

As expected, the report focuses on the lack of preparedness in many factors of Japan’s response. But, there’s another take-away worthy of discussion:  what Fukushima should finally teach us is that we can’t just continue to build the same nuclear reactors that we’ve been building for more than half a century. Think about if we were using the same phone we were using in 1955 or driving the same car we were driving over half of a century ago. No innovation in these areas means no cell phones.  No hybrids.  No iPads. 

So what does that mean for nuclear?  That we’re grappling with the same problems we’ve been facing since we built the first US reactor in 1957:  safety, economics, nuclear waste disposal, and proliferation concerns.  If we really want to hedge against natural gas and promote fuel diversity, we must maximize our investment in the research and development of alternative energy sources.  For nuclear, we need a cheaper way to make power without sacrificing safety, promoting proliferation, or adding to our nuclear waste problem. Scientists tell us that it can be done, but the government needs to help.   

There’s a lot of promising technology out there that has the potential to improve nuclear power, but to bring these technologies to market, we need strong public-private partnerships. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission  won’t permit a nuclear power plant without knowing it is safe and proliferation resistant, but companies can’t prove that their technology is safe without assistance from the government. While it is private industry that is coming up with these new ideas and wants to bring them to market, the Department of Energy must be involved with the testing of innovative technologies. We need a partnership among industry, the Department, the labs, and universities if we are ever to develop a new reactor that is safe, proliferation resistant, cost-effective and reduces our nuclear waste output.

As reports, “While nuclear power received some bad publicity last year after the earthquake in Japan caused a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which led to U.S. senators demanding that the NRC repeat a costly inspection of nuclear power, nuclear power is making a comeback.”  It’s a stretch to see how any power source can be competitive against $3/mmbtu natural gas, but we need a public-private partnership to produce the next generation of nuclear power plants if we are ever to have the nuclear renaissance many desire.   

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Rachel Miller is Vice President, Energy and Environment at Capitol Solutions, a boutique, bipartisan government relations firm in Washington, DC. Before she joined Capitol Solutions in 2009, Rachel served as Director of Federal Affairs for BP, where she was the lead Federal lobbyist on BP’s Alternative Energy businesses and climate change. She also served as Senator Feinstein’s Legislative Assistant for energy and transportation issues and as Representative Eliot Engel’s Legislative Assistant on issues related to energy, education, and immigration. At Capitol Solutions she works on a variety of federal policy issues-- from building efficiency and DOE loan guarantees to alternative fuels and Clean Air Act Regulations. Rachel also serves as co-president of the Women’s Energy Network, DC Chapter.

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