photo: Takver/Creative Commons
As the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant shifts to being a mere situation in the headlines, and both pro- and anti-nuclear supporters of various shades of green continue to opine, I have to admit to being conflicted.
Rather than the Japan earthquake and tsunami making me more decided on the issue of nuclear power, it has all just served to muddy to waters for me. Which is unfortunate when you're a writer whose job it is to have an opinion on (seemingly) everything and it's all the better when it's strongly pro or con the issue of the day. TAKE OUR POLL: Has the Fukushima Reactor Crisis Changed Your View of Nuclear Power?
Yesterday the ever-contrary George Monbiot (whose contrariness I often if not always agree with) wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian which at the time of this writing elicited 23 pages (!) of comments. Monbiot used to be against nuclear power but has shifted position as the result of how the reactors at Fukushima fared in the recent disaster.
If A Crappy Old Plant Hit By A Huge Quake Didn't Kill Anyone...
While still favoring a "major expansion" of renewables, and still not being fond of the people running the UK's nuclear power industry (he still "loathes the liars"), Monbiot proposes perspective:
A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
That is indeed a good perspective to take. As is the fact that the public's knowledge of the effects of radiation is low (not helped along by much of the mainstream media coverage it must be said) and the resultant fear, as George says, "wildly exaggerated".
Read more on this radiation dose chart...
There's No Guarantee Next Time Won't Kill People
But there's something in me that still wonders if that perspective is not a forced one. Perhaps rather than being a sign of durability, perhaps what happened represented a solid dose of luck as much an anything else. The power plant is still not secured and a post-mortem assessment of the exact chain of events still likely a long ways off.
I've always thought that even if nuclear power is in normal operation safe, and living near one under those conditions does indeed expose you to less radiation than living near a coal-fired power plant (as the chart above clear shows), the effects of the worst-case scenario are too great to not err on the side of caution to the point of opposing nuclear power.
And that's not even getting into more mundane issues of whether it's really low-carbon electricity when you include mining in the equation, the issue disposal of spent fuel, and whether it's wise to be investing in a power source that's so expensive when there are questions about how long we'll be able to keep mining the fuel.
photo: Domineik ter Heide/Creative Commons
Even if proponents of nuclear power in the environmental movement, from Stewart Brand to our own John Laumer and those in between running the gamut of fame, do have a valid point that compared to more coal power plants and even more natural gas ones, nuclear seems like a good bet for providing electricity and still not continuing to ruin the planet with excess greenhouse gas emissions--even against that, nuclear power just doesn't sit well with me. It somehow seems like more of the same that got us into this mess.
I realize to some that will make me seem like a neo-luddite, but that's far from the case. I just think that when report after report have been released showing how it's technically possible to transition to all renewable energy in a similar time period that it'd take to build all these new nuclear plants, we ought to more seriously consider that.
There's probably a snappier, more boldface, more contrasty way of saying that, but that's not how I feel about it. And frankly, that's not how I think you ought to think about nuclear power either. This is a complex issue, as is everything regarding the environmental problems we're facing, and it shouldn't be simplified to two shades of opinion.
Time to Slow Down and Reassess Our Expectations of Growth
Which is why coming across Bill McKibben's opinion piece, written a few days early than Monbiot's but also in The Guardian was timely. Bill provides a third way to think about nuclear, which also happens to nicely deal with energy and environmental issues more broadly at it gets at what I see as the root causes of all this.
After talking about sea level rise, McKibben writes (emphasis is mine):
We can try to deal with this in two ways. One is to attempt to widen it with more technology. If the Earth's temperature is rising, maybe we could "geoengineer" the planet, tossing sulphur into the atmosphere in an effort to block incoming sunlight. It's theoretically possible. But researchers warn it could do more harm than good, and maybe this isn't the week to trust the grandest promises of engineers, not when they've all but lost control of the highest technology we've ever built, there on the bluff at Fukushima. The other possibility is to try to build down a little: to focus on resilience, on safety. And to do that - here's the controversial part - instead of focusing on growth. We might decide that the human enterprise (at least in the west) has got big enough, that our appetites need not to grow, but to shrink a little, in order to provide us more margin. What would that mean? Buses and bikes and trains, not SUVs. Local food, with more people on the farm so that muscles replace some of the oil. Having learned that banks are "too big to fail", we might guess that our food and energy systems fall into that same category.
Rather than continuing to fall into the same camps of pro- and anti-nuke, how about we step outside that debate and look for solutions that don't depend on ever more growth, that have embedded at their core a concept of appropriate scale?