By Nathan Rudyk
In 1990, I had the profound pleasure of visiting Japan as the Editor of New Environment magazine, a publication devoted to sustainable environmental pracitices by both governments and corporations. Post WWII-Japan suffered near collapse of both its economy, and in a fervent post-war rush to industrialization, its physical environment. Yet the country's collective will lifted it from almost total despair in the 1940s and indescribable pollution and sickness in the 1960s to the world's most revered economy in 1990, with an enduring respect for environmental policy and practices based on the harsh lessons suffered by its people from mercury, cadmium and sulphur dioxide poisoning.
Having studied and witnessed their ability to overcome, I know the Japanese people will both survive and thrive after the current terrifying trifecta of earthquake, tsumani and nuclear catastrophe. Mine and every human heart cries out for what those people are going through and still have to endure in the days and weeks to come.
When it's an appropriate time for calmer heads to prevail, Japan and the world have to learn from still more harsh lessons being dealt at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. One of them surely will be to rethink commitments to nuclear power. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are 442 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide, with 65 new facilities under construction. Already this week, China, Switzerland and Germany have announced that plans for new or retrofitted plants are on hold.
I am writing from Ontario, the industrial heartland of Canada, and a province that is dependent on nuclear power for more than half its electricity and is planning $33 billion in new spending on nuclear energy. Yesterday, CTV news reported that:
Ontario's government stood behind its nuclear power facilities on Tuesday, saying it has no plans to back down from a planned expansion to one of its facilities.
A spokesman for the province's Energy Minister Brad Duguid said the government remained committed to building two new units at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Clarington, Ont., in the wake of a possible nuclear meltdown in Japan.
I support the Ontario government's decision, just as I do its commitments to green energy (the Ontario Clean Technology Alliance is a market2world client) with the caveat that every engineering assumption regarding public safety be re-examined and if necessary bolstered. I think every nuclear jurisdiction in the world will be taking this common-sense approach. Already the The European Union has decided to apply stress tests to see how its 143 nuclear plants would react in earthquakes and other emergencies.
Is there an alternative to nuclear energy? I suppose many of us wish there was, but I don't see a viable instant-on option. Either does George Monbiot in his blog posted earlier today at guardian.co.uk. Monbiot has been recognized by Nelson Mandela with a United Nations Global 500 Award for outstanding environmental achievement. In his Guardian blog he writes:
But, sound as the roots of the anti-nuclear movement are, we cannot allow historical sentiment to shield us from the bigger picture. Even when nuclear power plants go horribly wrong, they do less damage to the planet and its people than coal-burning stations operating normally.
Coal, the most carbon-dense of fossil fuels, is the primary driver of human-caused climate change. If its combustion is not curtailed, it could kill millions of times more people than nuclear power plants have done so far. Yes, I really do mean millions. The Chernobyl meltdown was hideous and traumatic. The official death toll so far appears to be 43 – 28 workers in the initial few months than a further 15 civilians by 2005. Totally unacceptable, of course; but a tiny fraction of the deaths for which climate change is likely to be responsible, through its damage to the food supply, its contribution to the spread of infectious diseases and its degradation of the quality of life for many of the world's poorest people.
Coal also causes plenty of other environmental damage, far worse than the side effects of nuclear power production: from mountaintop removal to acid rain and heavy metal pollution. An article in Scientific American points out that the fly ash produced by a coal-burning power plant "carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy".
Of course it's not a straight fight between coal and nuclear. There are plenty of other ways of producing electricity, and I continue to place appropriate renewables above nuclear power in my list of priorities. We must also make all possible efforts to reduce consumption. But we'll still need to generate electricity, and not all renewable sources are appropriate everywhere. While producing solar power makes perfect sense in north Africa, in the UK, by comparison to both wind and nuclear, it's a waste of money and resources. Abandoning nuclear power as an option narrows our choices just when we need to be thinking as broadly as possible.
Clearly the assumptions about what a nuclear plant can withstand on a major earthquake fault-line were incorrect in Japan, and based on the past track record of Japanese society, I know the country's next attempt at nuclear energy production will be far more rigorous. There's no need for another country to learn the Japanese nuclear lesson the hard way.
Once we're done reaching out to Japan with our hearts, let's reach out with our heads and apply a new level of common sense to powering our world.