March 15, 2011

Japan's Nuclear Nightmare Is a Warning

After the American Century

As I write this three nuclear reactors in Japan are in various stages of meltdown. The Japanese electrical industry adopted nuclear power plants for much the same reasons that western European nations did: the desire for a secure domestic energy supply, escaping dependence on fossil fuels. In recent decades the nuclear industry has touted the reactor as a clean and safe alternative to CO2 spouting coal-fired plants. While living in the UK I read innumerable newspaper articles extolling the advantages of atomic power, as the only responsible way to meet the nation's energy needs and curb greenhouse gases at the same time. 

All arguments for nuclear power, however, assume placid normality for very long periods. Even though nuclear plants impose the problem of storing waste for many generations, the assumption always seems to be that there will be no earthquakes, no floods, and no tsunamis. They also assume no successful terrorists, no wars, and no serious incompetence inside the plant. Furthermore, several thousand years of nuclear waste storage are not usually in the economic equation. The nuclear industry wants to profit right now and promise us that nothing untoward is going to happen for several millennia. 

The nuclear industry will now take pains to convince us that the meltdowns in Japan are extraordinary, and that the chance of anything similarly going wrong elsewhere in the future are infinitely small. Meanwhile, their public relations people will continue to attack solar and wind power, saying things that are not true, such as it is impossible to store such power. Nonsense. The Dutch, the Germans, and Texans have all shown precisely how it can be done, for example, through pumped storage and compressed air stored in caverns, to name just two methods.

What is tragically happening in Japan is a suggestive scenario for any place that handles nuclear materials, either in making nuclear fuel rods, transporting them to nuclear plants, using them, and then dealing with the tons of nuclear waste produced. This waste will include the entire nuclear plant itself, which cannot operate forever, but eventually must be decommissioned. At that point, it will be highly radioactive inside, and it will have to be guarded 24/7 for generations. Is that an expense we can send to future geneations?

The terrible events in Japan reveal the dangers posed by nuclear power everywhere, and should serve as a warning. This is not a safe or even an economically wise energy path. Far better to reduce energy consumption by increasing our efficiency, building more energy efficient buildings that reduce by 90% the power needed to heat and cool them (no pipe dream this, for it is already demonstrated in practice for houses and office buildings), and moving toward solar and wind power as much as possible.