Fukushima: the disaster that wasn’t

Paul Raven @ 06-05-2011

Via Charlie Stross, a piece at The Economist looking at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis two months on. Long story short: a very nasty accident, but not the disaster it could have been, which is pretty impressive considering it was caused multiple major natural disasters far in excess of even reasonable modern design specs happening in a ludicrously tight timeframe.

And here we see the downside of the 24-hour news cycle: by the time the facts are out and the dust has settled, the media vortex has moved on, leaving a dim memory in the public mind of “the Japanese nuke plant that went Chernobyl”. And because “that Japanese nuke plant didn’t actually go Chernobyl”isn’t newsworthy enough to bubble through the latest batch of panic and FUD and gory triumphalism, that’s how it’ll be remembered; good news doesn’t sell newspapers (or attract clickthrough). End result: the gradual rehabilitation of nuclear power has been set back more than two decades.

For the record: I don’t like nuclear power, and I remain to be convinced it has anywhere near the longevity suggested by its more boosterist advocates. Thorium reactors and other variants could address both the safety issues and the Peak Uranium problem, but neither offer the ready supply of weapons-grade materials that encouraged the initial rash of investment in nuclear power. But as an alternative to coal and oil, and a stop-gap on the way to truly renewable solutions, it’s a no-brainer. I wish I had the time and resources to do a money-trail on the strongest Fukushima FUD emitters, because I fully expect some familiar names would crop up.

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7 Responses to “Fukushima: the disaster that wasn’t”

  1. Realitybytes says:

    Well done. You’ve got it covered. I am of the same mind, yet live in Tokyo.

  2. Jung Choi says:

    I suspect that the people evacuated from the 20-km zone around Fukushima, with no idea when they can return, have a different perspective. As well as the farmers who can’t sell their produce because of radioactive contamination. And the dairy farmers. And the fishermen….

  3. Paul Raven says:

    Not denying it’s been bad. Just pointing out that it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been, or indeed as bad as everyone was saying it was going to be.

  4. ConfidentlyDubious says:

    I wouldn’t call a “no-brainer” choice something that produces extremely toxic and mutagenic waste, which can (and will, if not treated in the right way) pollute water and land if sophisticated and very costly maintenance procedures are not performed every 50 years or so *for tens of thousands of years*.
    Two considerations immediately spring to mind. First: this span of time is comparable with the whole duration of human civilization. Are we so sure that our remote descendants will be so happy to deal with our radioactive heritage, that they will be capable and able to do so, and (even worse) that during the eons no tyrant or fool will think of using our nuclear waste as a toxic weapon? Second: what is the *real* cost of a kWh of nuclear energy if all of this is actually taken into account? (For instance: what’s the accumulated cost of a trained nuclear technician hired for, say, 10000 years?)

  5. gmoke says:

    According to Matthew Bunn at Harvard, a poll of experts believe that thorium isn’t worth much R and D. Nuclear is most definitely not a path to renewables as it does not accommodate the variability of renewables (although there’s a German test of a regional 100% renewable grid a few years ago which was reportedly a great success). It’s also very expensive.

    The news I’ve been able to gather is that Fukushima released about 10% of what Chernobyl did but I suspect that all the facts are not in yet.

  6. Paul Raven says:

    @ConfidentalyDubious: sensible questions all, and I’m certainly not suggesting we run blithely into an all-nuclear future without considering every possible shortfall. However, that debate has to be done rationally, and moral panics about one-off disaster scenarios push rationality out of the frame.

    @gmoke: Nukes may not be a path to renewables, but they might provide some sort of stop-gap… though I’ve seen articles recently suggesting solar may finally hit a per-kWh cost lower than coal in the very near future, which would be a better path still. Assuming we can get past the lobbyists and hucksters keeping us tied to fossil fuels, of course… and I’m struggling to have much faith in the political process at the moment, as I imagine anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear is struggling. 🙁

  7. SpeakerToManagers says:

    I wouldn’t call a “no-brainer” choice something that produces extremely toxic and mutagenic waste, which can (and will, if not treated in the right way) pollute water and land if sophisticated and very costly maintenance procedures are not performed every 50 years or so *for tens of thousands of years*.

    Very similar statements could be made about coal, which has killed many times as many people in the last 60 years as nuclear power has. The point is not that nuclear power is perfectly safe; of course it isn’t. The question is, is nuclear power less safe than other things we’re using, and should it be a part of our overall power and carbon mitigation strategy. As Charlie Stross pointed out in a discussion on his blog a few days ago, the most rational measure we have on the safety of various energy sources is number of deaths per Terawatt-hour. By this measure nuclear power is still way safer than coal, which is still a very large part of the power strategy here in the US. Yes, nuclear could be safer than it is, and it should be; but it’s not so unsafe that we should immediately tear down all reactors and plow them under.