How Japan's Nuclear Crisis Makes the Climate Fight Harder

The short-term human and economic costs of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami are staggering.

The long-term repercussions could be worse.

That's because, even if the situation does not deteriorate any further, the fires, explosions, radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will  lead to greater scrutiny -- and higher costs -- for new nuclear plants.

That will make it harder to develop low carbon energy to replace fossil fuels and avert potentially catastrophic climate change.

I say this although I believe we should try to avoid a rush to judgment.

It's hard to know what's worse: the opportunism of anti-nuclear activists like Ed Markey, the Massachusetts congressman who only hours after the troubles began declared that

what is happening in Japan right now shows that a severe accident at a nuclear power plant can happen here

or the no-need-to-panic defense of industry backers like William Tucker who wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Monday that

If a meltdown does occur in Japan, it will be a disaster for the Tokyo Electric Power Company but not for the general public.

Oh really?

What I hope to do here is provide a little context -- about the costs of  nuclear power and the alternatives.

Let's begin with the alternatives. Thanks to the website, here are a few widgets that show where our energy is coming from, around the world and here in the U.S.:

While I understand that we can't project a future based on past trends, what jumps out at me from these charts is how thoroughly the global and U.S. energy markets are dominated by fossil fuels. Note that the numbers for solar, wind and geothermal are expressed in mBTU. You have to lop off the last three digits to compare them to the figures for oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear.

Given today's low natural gas prices, and the abundant supply of coal in the U.S. and China, which are the world's two biggest energy consumers, as you'll see below, and the absence of a price on carbon, there's little doubt that a pullback from nuclear will mean more burning of fossil fuels.