Nuclear power – not long ago heralded as an attractive supplier of low carbon electricity – has been making news for all of the wrong reasons as the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan unfolded last month. In response, a number of Governments have announced they will reconsider their nuclear options, but it is the effect on public opinion that may well prove more damaging.
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The full impact of the disaster is still unclear, but the hit to the nuclear industry is real and untimely. With emerging economies investing hard in their energy infrastructure, and many developed economies currently deciding how to replace ageing power plants, reactions to the disaster could have a serious long-term effect on the energy mix. Given the difficulty already faced in meeting growing energy requirements, a rejection of nuclear is an unwelcome prospect for anyone serious about solving the world’s energy needs.
It would not necessarily benefit the coal industry either. Much of the attraction of nuclear energy is its low carbon footprint. Saying “no” to nuclear is likely to mean more natural gas plants, the cleanest of the fossil fuel plants and relatively quick and cheap to build. But gas-fired power is not a panacea and dependence on one fuel is not healthy.
Some countries understand this: although coal still supplies much of China’s energy needs, in recent years there has been a serious push to diversify its energy mix with investment across the spectrum of energy sources, including renewables and clean coal. Politicians in the West should take note and realise that ensuring energy security and supply requires serious policy decisions to be made, regardless of the vagaries of public opinion. While that may run counter to many politicians’ instincts, it is necessary and would, at least in the long run, be welcome.
This month also marks the anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia, US. As the industry reflects on the tragedy, it is opportunity to consider the key task of keeping miners safe. As Tony Bumbico of Arch Coal explains in our spotlight feature on safety (pp. 79 –94), zero safety incidents is the only acceptable target. While there is still work to be done, coal miners and equipment manufactures are working hard to achieve this. Their diligence is making the industry safer and bringing that zero incidence target closer to reality.