The recent earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear accidents have certainly re-illustrated serious questions about nuclear energy and its safety. How does these relate to sustainability issues?
Atomic power has often been cited as an important “bridge” technology for the transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy to reduce climate change. It’s true that a nuclear power plant will have zero to low carbon emissions during operation, but it is also important to remember that it does not have a non-existent carbon footprint. Significant quantities of fossil fuels are still used in the production of nuclear fuels, especially in the extraction of ores. Additionally, the processing of ore into fuel consumes large quantities of energy, requires highly toxic chemicals and can release significant pollution to the ground and water. And of course, as we are being reminded by events in Japan, the waste products of nuclear energy produce and entire set of new problems. So far the only solution being used is long term storage, often on the grounds of nuclear reactors themselves. And many of these sites, especially in the United States, are running out of space. Since the very definition of sustainability requires that a technology be able to be applied in perpetuity, current practices in regard to nuclear power are not sustainable.
Given these facts, one interesting development out of this disaster will be to see how Japan deals with this sudden and massive reduction in generating capacity. Most of the country is currently subject to rolling blackouts, since the existing system cannot provide sufficient power. Given the irreversible damage done to the plant at Fukushima, and the vulnerabilities in nuclear power that have re-exposed, it is probably doubtful that another nuclear plant will be re-built at the site. We may see a new push for increases in energy efficiency of building and infrastructure during rebuilding efforts. Such changes are generally easier, quicker, and cheaper to carry out than the construction of new power plants (especially nuclear) which can take many years.