The earthquake that toppled building and spurred tsunamis not only wreaked havoc on the lives of millions of Japanese, but also affected renewable energy worldwide. Everyone agrees that this was an earthquake of historical proportions and yes, the Japanese with its history of the 1923 earthquake and spotless safety record for nuclear energy, was possibly the best prepared country in the world for this disaster. But that is the point, if we are on the nuclear precipice in Japan, then what does that say about countries less prepared, say Mexico right on our border. Every country and every continent is at risk, from South Africa to Ukraine to Canada.
The destructive power of the tsunamis was remarkable. I think that as kids we called tsunamis tidal waves. When you think of a 15 foot wave, you can conjure up on your mind a splash from a Hawaiian wave with a surfer bouncing down its face. The pictures of this tsunami tell a wholly different story. They look like a cauldron of evil relentlessly leveling anything and everything in their path. Within minutes, they had leveled entire towns, leaving only destruction and debris in their wake.
As terrifying as these tsunamis are, nothing could prepare the world for the utter breakdown in countless systems on several nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the earthquake. There is not necessarily shear panic on the streets, but the specter of a meltdown has caused deep concern not only in Japan but throughout the world—and especially the energy world, because nuclear energy up until the disaster in Japan was making a comeback.
Policymakers have again placed nuclear into the energy mix, because nuclear has had a stellar safety record over the last 24 years since Chernobyl. Proponents held France up as an example. France has 58 nuclear plants and generates almost 80% of its energy from nuclear power. There have been some accidents, but in general, France is seen as a model for incorporating nuclear energy into the energy portfolio of a country.
President Obama has recognized this eventuality in developing a comprehensive energy package for the United States. But just as the timing on offshore drilling could not have been worse with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, now just as Obama was getting ready to embrace (possibly not wholeheartedly) nuclear energy, the uncertain extent of the disaster in Japan will caused deep reservations about moving ahead with nuclear energy anytime soon.
For those who want to move more quickly with renewable energy and energy efficiency, the prospect of a nuclear energy disaster spells a clear path to a renewable energy clean solution. Solar farms and solar panels on homes are not going to spew radiation into the air and spell disaster in the event of an earthquake in California. But the calculus for renewable energy just got a lot more complicated as the tradeoffs that Obama can offer have now significantly narrowed.