Moar liek FUDushima, AMIRITES?

Paul Raven @ 16-03-2011

I’ve assiduously avoided talking about the nuclear situation in Japan at the moment, partly because I know little more about nuclear reactors than the average layman-with-a-science-education, and partly because there’s more than enough opinion and information – informed or otherwise – floating around the intertubes already without me adding more. (Plus I’m finding the what-about-meeeeee flavour of much of the opinion pieces a bit galling; yeah, you might get some fallout drifting over your neighbourhood if things go badly, but hey – you still have a neighbourhood, so suck it up.)

However, I feel fairly safe talking about the reaction to the nuclear situation, because I’m just about old enough to remember the Chernobyl panic here in the UK and Europe. The Chernobyl disaster (coupled with the last gasps of Cold War existentialism and my unhealthy interest in science text books from the grown-up section of the local library) contributed to making me stridently anti-nuclear for most of my life. Over the last five years or so, however, I found myself making peace with nuclear power (though I’m still totally opposed to nuclear weapons); sure, it has its downsides, but when measured against the downsides of fossil fuels as our primary energy source, nuclear look like a pretty decent option… especially when considered as the central support pole of a renewable energy wigwam.

I suspect others have reached a similar rapprochement in recent times, but the Fukushima flap is about the worst sort of PR that nuclear power could get, and plenty of folk have seen the sun shining and set out for the fields with their hay-making equipment; at this crucial time in global energy policy development, the last thing we need are distortions of the truth. (There are enough of those floating around already, after all, and the nuclear FUD-flood has already started in comment threads worldwide; when you’ve got an ideology to peddle, everything looks like a sales-pitch factoid.) But as Brian Wang points out at Next Big Future, if you’re going to suggest banning nuclear power for killing people, you should suggest the same for fossil fuels first… and even solar has a higher fatality rate per terawatt-hour.

Yes, this is a tragedy for the people of Japan and for the world as a whole, but tragedies are opportunities to learn and develop. To turn our backs on the lessons we’re learning here would be a far greater tragedy, and the greatest disservice to the hard work and sacrifice going on in Japan right now. As I said the other day, seeing Fukushima as someone else’s problem that might just blow back on you is not just myopic, it’s symptomatic of the biggest barrier to progress we face. Nothing that happens on this planet is someone else’s problem. Japan’s tragedy is a human tragedy. Whether we like it or not, we all stand shoulder to shoulder; the sooner we face up to that, the sooner we can start fixing things properly.

I don’t know that one more person’s best wishes and hopes for a successful fix will make any difference, but the folk trying to forestall disaster at Fukushima have mine nonetheless – they’re pretty much the epitome of bravery in the modern age, so far as I’m concerned.. I hope they have yours, too.

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2 Responses to “Moar liek FUDushima, AMIRITES?”

  1. deadmanjones says:

    I’m probably of a similar age. In the 80s, when I wasn’t worrying about acid rain (which I presumed would dissolve me) I was worried about radioactive rain contaminating all the sheep in the North West of England. I clearly recall this being the focus of UK news reports, and not the displacement of thousands of foreigners.

    Given that acid rain is a perpetual, and far worse, problem for China and Russia because of their fossil fuel use, I’m definitely not dissuaded of the current benefits of nuclear regardless of the current crisis – and the consequent heroics – in Fukushima.

  2. Martin McGrath says:

    There are a three of points I’d make about nuclear power – more specifically in the UK – which I think are worth taking into consideration before assuming that it is a “pretty decent option” even as part of a wider “renewable” power strategy (technically, of course, nuclear isn’t renewable, though it seems to have wheedled itself into that category – and known deposits of Uranium won’t outlast oil by much – but that’s another argument).

    First is the time lag in nuclear – building a new nuclear plant takes (at least) 10 years from start to finish and building enough of them to make a significant difference to UK generating needs is likely to take longer than that. With the current cost of non-renewable resources rocketing the time scale for nuclear to come online (several decades?) is likely to be longer than is helpful. Other renewables resources can be constructed far more quickly – especially if you don’t leave yourself hostage to the nimbys.

    The second point is the cost – British nuclear power is hugely subsidised. Sizewell B cost the best part of £4 billion to install and will cost at least that much again to decommission and then there’s the waste storage… To build enough nuclear capacity to really impact on UK needs will be wildly expensive – genuine renewable resources are likely to be more cost effective even including research/development costs and be available as quickly.

    Finally there’s the actual impact on CO2 emissions. Nuclear may be cleaner than fossil fuel but it’s not CO2 neutral by a long way. One estimate states that even if we could double nuclear power generation in UK CO2 emission would fall only 8% – mostly because electricity generation accounts for only about a third of all emissions in this country.

    Nuclear looks appealing because it looks easy – its technology that’s here and its ready to go. But the costs are back loaded onto the whole of the tax paying public and therefore subsidise the biggest consumers (which is the wrong way round) and it isn’t a long or even medium term solution to the problems we face. Surely it is better to spend the money on implementing and improving technologies that are cleaner, make financial sense and provide paths to longer term sustainability?