The Hidden Fallout of Fukushima
The Fukushima Daiichi disaster in March of 2011 delivered a third blow to Japan after a horrendous earthquake and tsunami. In the wake of this disaster, the world found itself reexamining the role of nuclear energy, resulting in many nations severely curtailing their nuclear power programs or planning to withdraw from them altogether within a given time-frame. While I completely agree with those who think nuclear power is the least desirable source of “clean” energy, I have to question whether this knee-jerk reaction is wise. It seems like almost instantaneously pulling the plug on nuclear power energy in many industrialized nations would leave a gaping power vacuum – excuse the pun – which may be filled by fossil fuels rather than renewables, which are in their infancy and much more expensive.
Countries that either already heavily rely on nuclear power to meet their energy needs or had planned on incorporating nuclear energy into their systems to decrease reliance on fossil fuels are now entirely scrapping plans for new power plants and shutting down old ones. Japan once relied on nuclear power for one third of its energy, with plans to increase that to 50 percent. Post Fukushima, Japan has decided that it will be a nuclear free country by 2050. There is new legislation in the making requiring plants to be shut down after forty years of operation, a number that the Fukushima plant had exceeded.
A limit on years of operation is an excellent idea, because with nuclear power, it should always be safety first. However, local authorities in areas with relatively new reactors are refusing to restart reactors that had been shut down for maintenance in light of the Fukushima disaster. Since then, Japan’s natural gas and oil imports have increased by 15-30 percent. Given that Japan is an industrialized nation with heavy energy demands, that jump in fossil fuel consumption is no insignificant matter, especially when extrapolated across decades.
Siemens, a German engineering company, announced that it will withdraw entirely from the nuclear industry, where before, they had been planning to cooperate with Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company in order to build dozens of reactors in Russia. Halting the construction of new power plants isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I would hope that in the long run, we would phase nuclear power out as renewables like solar and wind advance. What is disturbing however, is the immediate shutdown of already existing and running nuclear power plants in Germany as a kneejerk reaction to Fukushima.
Following Fukushima, Germany saw the biggest anti-nuclear demonstrations in its history, with over 200,000 people taking to the streets and the German government responded promptly by legislating that every nuclear reactor in the country be shut down by 2022. Of its original seventeen reactors, only nine are left in operation at the moment and before this brouhaha, nuclear reactors provided Germany with 23 percent of its energy. A decade is not enough time for renewables to advance to a point where they can be implemented to fill this gaping energy deficit and meet Germany’s energy needs. Fifty years might not be enough. The sad and inevitable truth is that dirty, climate-change inducing fossil fuels are going to fill this void, just as it has in Japan. The list of countries rethinking their energy policies extends beyond these two examples, to include Italy, India, the United States, and many others.
There are two questions we need to be asking ourselves. First, is the use of nuclear power worse than the alternative which at this moment in time is to consume significantly more fossil fuels? Second, are the dangers of nuclear power inherent or something that can be significantly reduced by proper regulation and by implementing evolving technologies to mitigate risk?
It’s no lie that Nuclear power is dangerous, and produces radioactive waste which is also dangerous and a pain to store, being one of those “not in my back yard” kinds of things. However, it’s not necessarily true that the Fukushima incident and meltdowns in general, are an unavoidable, periodic side effect of nuclear energy, given stringent regulations and maintenance. Five months after the meltdown, it was discovered that there was a human element to the cause, not just the double whammy of an earthquake and tsunami shutting down generators. The reactor’s recirculation pipes were badly fractured and industry watchdogs had been criticizing the poor maintenance of this site long before the disaster. The growing consensus among experts is that the meltdown may have been avoided if the pipes had been properly maintained.
Rather than have a visceral reaction to the Fukushima disaster, we need to take a step back and assess the role of nuclear energy within the greater context of sustainability and decreased carbon emissions. The fact is that it exists, and provides significant energy to a number of countries – energy that isn’t contributing to our imminent climate change issues. I understand why the reaction to the Fukushima-Daiichi meltdown is so strong. It is human nature to respond to perceived threats which are immediate, while overlooking those which are more slow-acting. A nuclear meltdown can kill quickly but it may take decades or centuries before rising sea levels swallow up coastal cities, displacing millions of people; and perhaps as long before erratic weather patterns and draughts cause mass famines.
But the thing is, nuclear meltdowns are a relatively easy fix – all we have to do is dispense with the pro-business rhetoric and regulate this potentially deadly industry the way it should be regulated. Climate change, if we keep spewing carbon dioxide into the air at the rate at which we’re doing (a sunny scenario, considering that we’re spewing at ever increasing rates) may well be irreversible. The reaction to Fukushima demonstrates, once again, humanities crippling tendency to overestimate short-term and immediate threats while demonstrating little ability to plan for the long-term.
This may be the swan song for nuclear power, which would be fine if we had sufficient solar and wind capabilities to fill the void. One positive outcome from all of this is that investment in these renewables has jumped since Fukushima. Less focus on nuclear means more focus on solar and wind, which should help those industries pick up speed. I sincerely hope the boost felt to these industries is significant and helps them advance rapidly enough to replace nuclear energy, and fossil fuels in time to mitigate climate change.
Reasons to JOIN US include:
- It's absolutely FREE!
- Get Green Tips You MUST know about.
- How to's on going green, saving money, and having fun.
- Keep up-to-date on our posts in cased you missed them.