After Japan’s atomic tsunami

As if a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a murderous tsunami were not enough, Japan has for the last few weeks been contemplating an even scarier predicament. As the news unfolded on our television screens, the world watched in trepidation as Japan fought to prevent a nuclear meltdown at a series of reactors crippled by the events of March 9.

Ten-metre-high waves and then the ensuing explosions at the Fukushima Daichi reactor rendered the nuclear plant helpless. This has raised the spectre of nuclear catastrophe at a plant a mere 240 kilometres away from Tokyo, triggering a national crisis unseen since World War II as authorities desperately try to cool down the overheated fuel rods that are emitting increased levels of radiation and ultimately the probable scenario of a nuclear meltdown.

Beyond the evident tragedy that has struck Japan, the Fukushima incident has reignited the somewhat dormant controversy about the actual viability of nuclear power and its attendant risks to human life and the environment when things go horribly wrong. These concerns have radiated across the globe as many governments revisit their decisions to commission new energy capacity driven exclusively by nuclear energy.

Fukushima has resurrected the terrible memories of Chernobyl’s 1986 nuclear disaster where the Ukrainian nuclear reactor imploded with devastating consequences, spreading panic and radioactive waste across Europe and rendering the city of Prypiat a veritable ghost town.

Although only two workers died in the initial explosion, it is estimated that by 2006 it had claimed the lives of 9,000 people directly affected by the radiation. The history of civil nuclear energy has been unfortunately dogged by explosions, leaks and the occasional cover-up. The most significant incidents preceding Chernobyl were Windscale in Britain in 1957 and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, United States in 1979. But nothing came anywhere close to the Ukrainian disaster! The event made many governments and people rethink the efficacy of this seemingly endless form of energy. For decades nuclear energy was considered as a pariah although this was increasingly tempered as fossil fuels and oil use in general spiked and its environmental costs counted.

Notwithstanding, over 400 nuclear plants are operating at this moment around the world. A total of 132 are in the US (some of which are bizarrely built in unlikely areas over well-documented fault lines in California). Well over 140 are in Europe. Germany alone has 59 nuclear reactors, 77 per cent of France’s electricity demand is generated by nuclear and Sweden generates 47 per cent of its demand in the same way. On the other hand our neighbours in Italy had decommissioned all reactors by the mid-1980s. But this was all about to change as the UK and Italy (among many others such as China and India) are embarking on a massive nuclear energy programme. Fukushima may yet change all this. It is still too early to be seen if the Japanese “apocalypse” will reverse things once again. It is highly unlikely that it will scupper plans for giants like China and India as energy demands rise exponentially. I suspect that the situation will be the same in mainland Europe.

There are two distinctly opposing camps when the nuclear power debate is discussed. Proponents of nuclear energy argue that nuclear power is sustainable, reduces carbon emissions, increases energy security and is a viable alternative to polluting fossil fuel. Nuclear power makes countries energy independent and proponents cite the latest technology as safe, reliable and relatively clean.

Diametrically opposing this view we find opponents of nuclear energy who insist that nuclear power poses too many risks. They insist that nuclear power generation is a complex process, very costly in its capital expenditure and the threats to human health and the environment through uranium mining and possible events such as Fukushima are immense. Rather than building reactors that have enormous and irresistible force, mankind should learn to live in a more sustainable, low-carbon lifestyle.

As in all controversies of this nature it is probable that both sides have valid economic and safety arguments. It remains a fact that nuclear plants are extremely complex, mechanical systems. Manufacturers of modern plants insist that much of this complexity has been made redundant and that new reactors are much safer, reliable and more efficient. At any rate I am not amazed that they would make such claims. Clearly nuclear power harnesses forces that when not under control may for manifold reasons present mankind with improbable challenges. Opponents of nuclear will cite natural disasters, human error and even terrorist attack as possible scenarios for regional or global disaster. Some experts continue to insist that new design guidelines are defective and that nuclear systems are much more likely to fail when unquantifiable events occur. Unfortunately, as in Japan, unforeseen events do happen.

The case for nuclear power remains strong and at the same time clearly worrying. Once again mankind faces a tough choice aided and abetted by its unquenchable demand for increased energy sources. Connie Hedegaard, EU Commissioner For Climate Action, may have made a terse comment that sums it all up: “We can say that if we do not want nuclear, we should have even more cheap fossil fuels to replace it, or we could say: Why not use this opportunity to address the necessity of moving towards a low-carbon emissions society? I think we should do that.”

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