Business and government need to make sure alternatives to fossil fuels do not add to human and environmental health hazards.
Part Two of a three-part series from CSRwire.
By CSRwire Talkback Managing Editor Francesca Rheannon
My last post in these pages, written a week ago, tackled seven top health hazards of climate change. I promised readers my next post would explore remedies governments, businesses and individuals can use to protect human health from the “the biggest global health threat of the 21st Century.”
What a difference a week makes. A devastating earthquake in Japan set off a tsunami that has likely claimed tens of thousands of lives and is also threatening a full-scale nuclear catastrophe.
With three reactors in “partial meltdown,” another with its spent fuel rods on fire and radiation levels spiking as I write these words, the unfolding nuclear emergency at Fukushima will end up — in the best case scenario — having caused acute injury or death to some plant workers and almost certainly an eventual rise in cancer in those living near the plant (especially children), or — worst case scenario — spewing radioactive clouds that will circle the globe for months, potentially causing many cancers and birth defects for a long time to come.
So, rather than continue on my promised path, I decided to take a short detour into a now more pressing question. After Fukushima, do we face a Hobbesian choice between illness, death and environmental disaster from fossil fuels — or illness, death and environmental disaster from the technologies we hope to replace them?
Nuclear energy was supposed to help get us off our fossil fuel addiction — it was supposed to be “clean” and provide a bridge to less mature technologies like wind and solar. Proponents of nuclear, including one of my heroes, climatologist Jim Hansen, have said that without a renaissance in nuclear energy, the world will not be able to get off coal in time to avert catastrophic climate change. As of March 11, however, the nuclear renaissance is in doubt, both in the US and abroad.
In fact there have been doubts all along. Critics have charged nuclear is anything but “clean:” nuclear waste is (practically) forever, transporting it to far-flung permanent waste storage facilities (that have yet to exist and probably never will) puts communities at risk of contaminating accidents, nuclear plants are terrorist magnets, and they are prodigious water hogs in a world that climate change is making water-poor. (The hotter and drier the earth gets, the more water nuclear power plants will commandeer to supply the increased demand by people running more air conditioners more often.) Moreover, nuclear plants carry a heavy carbon footprint from construction; mining, processing and transporting uranium; storing waste and decommissioning.
Claims of the safety of present nukes are Panglossian at best and disingenuous at worse: the Japanese have the highest nuclear plant safety standards in the world, yet they built their reactors to withstand earthquakes, not tsunamis — despite the fact the two go together, as any Japanese kindergartner can tell you. And don’t believe claims that low levels of radiation pose no danger. They do: there is no safe exposure level to ionizing radiation (although the risk does go up with more exposure).
If you think nuclear operators on American soil are any better than the Japanese on safety, I’ve got a nuclear plant in Vermont I can sell you. Vermont Yankee is the same design as the failed reactors at Fukushima and it has been leaking for years. Thanks to a courageous governor — probably encouraged by a long-battling group of activists — that plant will be shut down, in spite of the NRC’s approval extending the plant’s license for another 12 years. But he is the exception among politicians, not the rule. Perhaps nuclear plants can be made safer, but we’d have to have a different political climate — one not beholden to corporate interests — to insure that.
How about other energy alternatives to fossil fuels? As we’ve learned from the case of biofuels, the cure may be no better than the disease. Consider this:
Even wind and solar — certainly our best bets for clean electric power — come with some environmental concerns, from rare earth mining to harm to migratory birds.
So, what’s a climate hawk to do? We need to consider a sobering truth: there is no “free” energy. We are going to have to put responsible innovation at the core of our search for clean, renewable energy; we are going to have to put efficiency first; and we are all — consumers, producers and investors alike — going to have to learn to live better with less.
How we can do that will be the subject of my third and final post in this series. Stay tuned.
About Francesca Rheannon
Francesca is CSRwire’s Talkback Managing Editor. An award-winning journalist, Francesca is co-founder of Sea Change Media. She produces the Sea Change Radio’s series, Back to The Future, and co-produces the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility’s podcast, The Arc of Change. Francesca’s work has appeared at SocialFunds.com, The CRO and E Magazine, and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writers Voice with Francesca Rheannon.
Talkback Readers: What is a climate hawk to do? Which alternative energies pose minimal health risks? Tell us on Talkback!