After Fukushima, can nuclear power actually help save the planet?

After Fukushima, can nuclear power actually help save the planet?

Ten years ago this week, a powerful earthquake off the coast of eastern Japan triggered a tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear plant, resulting in the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. A decade and dozens of decommissioned reactors later, nuclear energy still supplies about 10 percent of global electricity, but its future remains uncertain.

As more countries pledge to curb emissions to mitigate climate change, nuclear could serve as a clean(ish) and reliable source of energy. But investing more in nuclear comes with tradeoffs.

Nuclear is greener than you think. It's not renewable like solar or wind, but nuclear's direct carbon dioxide emissions output is zero. Over its life cycle, a nuclear plant produces about the same volume of indirect emissions per unit of electricity (mainly to extract and process uranium, to build and operate the facilities, and store the waste) as wind, and one-third of solar. That helps explain why the use of nuclear power is not ruled out entirely by US proponents of the Green New Deal.

There's also the unintended environmental cost of shutting down. When the Fukushima disaster prompted Germany to take most of its nuclear plants offline, it was soon forced to fire up its coal plants, leading to 1,100 additional deaths per year from air pollution. Scientists estimate that not replacing all nuclear plants with fossil fuels by 2050 could save more than seven million lives.

Moreover, while solar and wind are both intermittent and therefore depend on energy storage, nuclear is as reliable as oil, gas, and coal. The International Energy Agency projects that the world could meet its Paris climate goals by 2040 by raising nuclear's share of the global energy mix to 15 percent and investing a lot more in cheaper, cleaner nuclear plants.

But nuclear is also very expensive, and understandably unpopular. Generating electricity from nuclear now costs about $112-189 per megawatt hour, much more than solar ($36-44) and wind ($29-56). Also, while the total lifetime cost of building and running a plant has declined for solar and wind over the last decade, it has increased for nuclear, so poorer countries can't afford it. Finally, the average construction time for a single plant is nearly 10 years — dangerously slow for the urgent battle against climate change.

The other major concern is safety. To be fair, unlike Chernobyl the Fukushima accident didn't kill anyone from radiation, and was caused not by a chain of human errors but a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, a catastrophe on a scale that even the safety-conscious Japanese hadn't planned for. But they did build the site near the coast in a known quake-prone area, and they didn't protect the reactors as well as European countries did after a French plant flooded in 1999.

More importantly, Fukushima spurred a global popular backlash against nuclear power that has yet to dissipate. More than 49 percent of Japanese people said a year ago that they want nuclear power to be discontinued. Roughly the same percentage of Americans now have an unfavorable view of nuclear, making it the most unpopular source of energy in the US after coal.

So, who's still building new nuclear plants, and why? Russia, for now the dominant global player in the industry, is exporting its nuclear technology to countries with relatively friendly governments like those in Hungary, Iran, and Turkey. But China is catching up fast, and has plans to both finance and construct new plants in places as diverse as Pakistan, South Africa… and the UK.

Moscow and Beijing — the latter betting big on nuclear as part of its bid to go carbon-neutral by 2050 — are competing to fill the void briefly created by the US. (The Trump administration reversed Obama-era bans on US international public lenders financing nuclear projects abroad, although President Joe Biden has yet to say whether he'll stay the course.)

If the Americans stage a nuclear export comeback, things could get interesting. On the one hand, US-built plants might be preferable for countries committed to net zero emissions that can afford them. On the other hand, some of those same nations have popular environmentalist parties that want to abolish nuclear energy, and many locals will protest nuclear construction in their backyard.

A tough choice. Weighing the risks of a costly, unpopular source of energy against the benefits of emissions-free electricity will provoke debate in many countries. But as the drive for climate action becomes more urgent, governments are running out of time to make their choice.

Building on more than 15 years of sustainability leadership, Walmart is doubling down on addressing the growing climate crisis by targeting zero emissions across the company's global operations by 2040. Walmart and the Walmart Foundation are also committing to help protect, manage or restore at least 50 million acres of land and one million square miles of ocean by 2030 to help combat the cascading loss of nature threatening the planet.

One of the world's most famous political dissidents may die in a Russian prison this week.

Alexei Navalny has been on a hunger strike for almost three weeks over the authorities' refusal to let his own medical team examine him after he developed signs of tuberculosis. Now, one of his aides says Navalny is "close to death."

The fate of Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic — who was poisoned last summer, allegedly by state officials, treated in Germany, and then jailed upon his return to Russia — is being closely watched both inside and outside the country.

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Ian Bremmer and Bill Maher discussed the global leadership of the United States compared to that of China on a recent episode of Real Time. "The level of corruption in China, the level of corruption in China, even the buildings and the rails you talk about - the average building the Chinese build lasts for 20, 25 years. In the United States, it lasts for 40 to 50. There's a reason why we are still the world's most powerful country," Ian argued. "I'm just saying China's not eating our lunch - that's all."

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As the price of Bitcoin has skyrocketed in recent months, so has the amount of energy that procuring it hogs. Research shows that Bitcoin "mining" now uses 80 percent more energy than at the start of 2020. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates recently sounded the alarm on crypto, saying that he would not invest in Bitcoin because mining for the digital currency requires huge amounts of energy, much of which is powered by fossil fuels that harm the environment. So where does Bitcoin rank in electricity consumption compared to nations?

Even if the US, Europe, China, and India reduce carbon emissions at the rate they've promised, much climate damage has already been done. That shouldn't stop these and other countries from doing all they can to meet their net-zero emissions targets, but they also better start preparing for a world of people on the move.

Climate change will displace an unprecedented number of people in coming years, creating not just a series of humanitarian crises in many parts of the world, but lasting political, economic, and social upheaval as those of us who live on higher ground try to find a sustainable place for these climate refugees to live.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody, Ian Bremmer here, kicking off your beautiful spring week from New York City. A little Quick Take. I thought I'd talk today about Russia, going to be in the news this week. Putin doesn't like it when they're out of the news for too long, certainly plenty going on between the US and Russia right now.

I'd say, first of all, to start off, the relationship is in the toilet. We know this. It is the worst it's been since the early '80s. That was true even under Trump. Trump and Putin personally had a pretty good relationship, but Trump wasn't able to get anything really done for the Russians, because both the Republicans in Congress, key members of cabinet under Trump, massive amount of constraints on what Trump could actually do, whether it's trying to bring Russia back into the G7 or recognize Crimea as a part of Russia, or remove or reduce sanctions. None of that actually got done. In fact, the relationship deteriorated over the four years.

But now we've got Biden and the focus is of course, more on human rights. The focus is more on climate change, which means that Russia as a massive energy exporter and particularly in terms of their influence on Eastern Europe and Western Europe on the downstream for gas delivery, for example, something that Biden is much more focused on. So a lot more pressure on the Russians, and the Russians don't care. Their willingness to hit back and show that the Americans are not willing to take any significant risks to constrain the Russians is also fairly significant. And this is playing out in a number of ways.

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Pakistani radicals vs French cartoons: It's been a tumultuous week in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city. After widespread protests broke out across the Muslim world late last year after Paris defended French publications' rights to publish satirical images of the Prophet Mohamed, the radical Pakistani Islamist group Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), gave Pakistan's government until April 20 to expel the French ambassador, when it had planned nationwide demonstrations. When Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to meet their demands, more violence erupted across the country and authorities arrested the TLP leader — prompting TLP supporters to hit back by kidnapping six state security personnel in Lahore this past weekend. Authorities have now banned the TLP outright and are bracing for more violence in the coming days. France, meanwhile, has urged all of its citizens to leave Pakistan.

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1,544: South African authorities say that at least 1,544 square miles of land has already been destroyed by wildfires in Cape Town. Landmarks including an African antiquities library at Cape Town university were gutted by the flames, while communities around the historic Table Mountain were evacuated as fire engulfed the area.

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