Japan’s nuclear crisis is an environmental, financial, and humanitarian disaster, and it has far-reaching implications for energy policy here in the US and abroad.

Many are calling for the dismantling of the nuclear industry, but  doing so could drive us even further away from clean energy. As with all strategy you have levers, not switches – confusing the two can cost you. For now at least, nuclear is the most viable energy lever cleantech has.
Let’s be clear: nuclear is by no means “clean energy” but it is our friend at the cleantech table because the alternative – fossil fuels – is an immense economic problem that we cannot shake in the near term. In this case, nuclear is the devil we know.

There are many reasons we can’t seem to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, including unfair subsidies for oil & gasuncertain efficiencies and costs, and even the age-old NIMBY problem. And then there’s the anti-science/education/elite political agenda, which is a whole different issue entirely though, as many have pointed out, we’ve been here many times before. But one of the biggest reasons we can’t get off fossil fuels is the availability of viable alternatives.

Before you go for that comment section with every alternative energy option, consider that it comes down to a question of alternatives, demand, and means. The world currently gets over 80% of its energy needs through fossil fuels, while nuclear provides only 5%. Alternative technologies like wind and solar currently contribute somewhere below 1%, which leaves a lot of room to grow – a good thing for innovation, but hardly the muscle you need to push the clean energy agenda. If you want to push on a gas pedal this big it’s going to need more than just venture capital from Sand Hill Road – it requires a fundamental shift in the global energy infrastructure and the way we live.

And if you think the fossil fuel industry is bad now, it’s about to get worse. The immense lever at play for traditional fossil fuel energy is the price of oil. When oil goes up, unconventional (read = expensive and usually environmentally disastrous) sources like the tar sands and oil shale become more economically viable. And fossil fuel reserves in this segment are vast – about 35x what’s available today. So as long as we are willing to pay for oil, the companies who supply our energy will continue to dig.

So why don’t these companies simply invest in solar and wind as cheaper alternatives to digging? Technologies like inexpensive solar roofs, immense solar farms, wind energy, and hydro power already exist. But our nuclear energy lever has been in the “off” position since the mid-nineties with global supply essentially flat, and as Dr. Malhotra at SRI of the points out in his book A Cubic Mile of Oil, future global energy requirements are truly staggering.

According to this research, to meet future energy demand we would need to build 250,000 solar roofs each day for the next 50 years – or one nuclear plant each week, 1200 windmills per week, or 200 hydro dams each quarter. Put in this context, it’s easier to see the complexities in what seemed to be a simple demand/supply question.

Countries are now re-examining their approach to nuclear as a result of the horrific situation in Japan’s reactors. The US is also re-evaluating it’s energy policy. But the larger risk here is that both sides of the climate change debate will weigh in on why we should kill nuclear. GreenpeaceLieberman, and others say the Japan situation highlights the need for renewables, which is a viable argument.

There’s a danger in trying to kill nuclear at this point in time – we could end up creating a vacuum without enough support for renewables where the default option – the oil and coal we’ve been using for a hundred years – looks like the cheapest and safest way forward. Yes, nuclear is less effectivemore expensive, and produces less jobs than alternative energy, but if we’re going to kill it, we should ensure that renewables is the default option. At this point, I don’t think it is.

If the past decade in cleantech has taught us anything, its that doing the right thing is not a slam dunk. While the facts may be on our side to have renewables fill the vacuum created by killing nuclear, we’ve seen time and again that facts have little to do with energy policy. Japan’s disaster is bringing to the forefront the terrifying risks of nuclear energy, but it’s an unfortunate bellwether for the types of tradeoffs we will be forced to make in our insatiable demand for energy – removing nuclear now may leave us with an equally damaging energy source in fossil fuels. If we are to succeed in developing a clean energy economy we need to keep every strategic lever we have.

[Image via exquisitur/Flickr]

Michael Meehan is a cleantech entrepreneur and executive in Silicon Valley. He is co-founder and Chief Green Advisor for ENXSUITE and is currently CEO of iVeridis Corporation. In his 16+ years in the industry, Meehan has advised both the White House and the UN on cleantech issues, co-founded The Climate Resource, and sits on several boards and advisory panels for NGOs. Voted among the top 5 CEOs to follow by BusinessWeek magazine, you can follow Meehan on Twitter at http://twitter.com/michaelmeehan and visit his blog Cleantech Ink at http://www.cleantechink.com.