For the first time decades, the U.S. is thinking about building some new nuclear power plants. Make that "was thinking," as the chilling details coming out of Japan in the aftermath of last week's disaster have put the question of nuclear safety back on the table. One thing's for sure: U.S. nuclear advocates aren't likely to retain any goodwill from electric car enthusiasts.
EVs that run on 100-percent electric power all the time -- such as Nissan's Leaf -- have a single big advantage over hybrids: they produce no environmentally toxic emissions. But they have an Achilles' Heel, which is that they can never be completely "carbon neutral" because the electricity that makes them go, in many case, comes from burning dirty coal.
An unlikely engagement that never made it to the altar
A couple of developments, prior to the Japanese quake, had brought nuclear back into the discussions. People are finally beginning to seriously worry about global warming and about dwindling fossil-fuel energy supplies. And new nuclear reactor designs, supported by the likes of Bill Gates and another former Microsofter, Nathan Myhrvold, promised to solve the waste challenges that the industry has struggled with in its past.
This last bit naturally caught the attention of the tech crowd and got people thinking that nuclear power wasn't all about Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, but rather a great way to produce nearly CO2-free energy. Early adopters of EVs, themselves a technophilic bunch, could be heard losing their historic antipathy to nukes, especially since widespread electrification was going to require much more power than could be supplied by renewables, such as solar and wind.
The political analogy
It was the kind of oil-meets-water compromise that struck me as being similar to the pragmatic bond that so-called "New Democrats" had forged in the 1990s with fiscal conservatives. If business and finance weren't the enemies of a liberal society, then perhaps electric car boosters and nuclear power advocates could also find some common ground.
All it takes is one reactor core meltdown to upset that budding alliance. Nuclear power, overall, has a good track record for safety. But when it all goes wrong, it goes very, very wrong. Citizens of Tokyo are now bracing for the news that a radiation cloud is drifting toward them. Other countries with nuclear plants near major cities are doing their own risk calculations.
The fear factor cannot be overstated
People who are serious about the environment are going to continue to demands more EVs. My own view is that we should push for nearly full electrification by the middle of the century. But the stakes for solving the power conundrum just got raised. New nukes were an elegant solution, as long as humanity's dizzying fear of nuclear accidents could be pushed aside.
Now, any new nuclear plant will have to be so thoroughly fail-safed that it will probably be prohibitively expensive to build and maintain. As this commentary points out, the fossil fuels lobby smells blood in the water and will seek to nip this new nukes thing in the bud. New nukes had friends in the EV community, but that group can now be counted on to insist that the government focus not on a nuclear revival, but on more aggressive funding into renewable energy.
Is this the beginning of the end for nuclear power?
Three Mile Island happened in the screwed-up 1970s, before we all arrived in the glorious technological Utopia we currently occupy. Chernobyl could be blamed on Cold War secrecy and Soviet Era corner-cutting. But the Fukushima catastrophe happened at a time and place where such things aren't supposed to happen. And you can bet that electric car owners, with their elevated incomes and political influence, are paying careful attention.