November 18, 2011

Nuclear concerns temporary, Berkeley prof says

Fears about the safety and viability of nuclear power following the meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant are likely to falter, a UC Berkeley professor said in a talk Tuesday at the Harris School of Public Policy.

Lucas Davis, a professor at the Hoss School of Business, argued that fluctuations in energy markets and changes in tax legislation were primarily responsible for the recent lull in the nuclear power industry, rather than serious doubts about the security and viability of nuclear plants.

The Fukushima disaster precipitated a rise in public concerns about potential accidents, storage of nuclear waste, and nuclear proliferation across the globe. However, Davis pointed out that this response was a repeat of those following the meltdowns at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island reactor and the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine, which gave way to new demands for nuclear power quickly after both accidents.

“History is repeating itself,” Davis said.

Between 2007 and 2008, there were 26 applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to build nuclear reactors in the United States.

Davis claimed the surge of applications was due to proposed carbon tax legislation, a 2008 spike in natural gas prices, and increasing demand for electricity. However, when these trends took a turn in the opposite direction, and the legislation stalled, the projects were dropped.

The surge of enthusiasm before Fukushima was nothing compared to that in the ’50s and ’60s, Davis said, and the events in Japan will not be a long-term factor in what he predicts will be lower levels of enthusiasm.

“The prospects for a revival of U.S. nuclear power were dim before Fukushima…. Cost of capital is rightly high. Investment in these is risky,” Davis said. “Fukushima brought concerns to attention, but construction is the real hindrance.”

The cost of regulating risk and construction is substantial. Market variability, such as the price of natural gas, and new technological advances also make investment in nuclear energy a gamble.

However, Davis’s outlook on energy remains positive, and he argued that spikes in energy prices have always been followed by periods of innovations in energy supplies.

“We don’t have too much of a stomach for expensive environmental regulation here in the United States,” Davis said. “Put a cap on carbon and see what happens.”