Japan’s tragedy points the way to a safer future – if we learn its lesson.
By Carl Safina
Japan’s tsunami is a horrific tragedy of staggering human and economic proportions. It is also as natural a disaster as humanity can still suffer. Its cause is shifting plates in Earth’s crust. It has nothing to do with greenhouse gases or global warming, which now casts suspicion on whether weather-related disasters are entirely natural or partially human-caused (Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico, or the more recent droughts that have helped push up food prices, may reflect humanly influenced atmospheric change).
Natural or not, the tsunami will, however, force reevaluation of energy options that have implications for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Atomic energy is probably the most scaled-up, ready-to-go alternative to conventional combustion-based technologies requiring petroleum or coal.
That’s old news, of course. And that’s the problem.
Decades after we saw the need for alternative fuels – we have scant options. More than anywhere else, Japan’s engineers build with earthquakes in mind. In the case of the earthquake-induced problems at its nuclear reactors, no one is really at fault. Sometimes someone is at fault, as with last year’s Gulf of Mexico BP oil well blowout. In the latter case, fault lies with the bad judgment of the people involved. In Japan’s case, the fault is a geological one.
What these two very different circumstances – faultiness and faultlessness – have in common is: accidents happen.
So for me the way I’ve been thinking of it is that among the many reasons we need to transition to a clean-energy economy is the magnitude of inherent risks. Not the frequency of accidents, which are rather rare, but the severity of inevitable accidents.
The nuclear-energy risks are quite dangerous. As are the increasing risks from oil as we go to deeper waters where controlling blowouts is extremely difficult and takes months. Fracking for natural gas has been called safe, but its safety is increasingly being challenged by indications that it can pollute drinking water supplies, including New York City’s. Coal is putting mercury in fish, largely changing the heat balance of the planet and acidifying the ocean.
Clean energies like sunlight, tides, heat from the Earth, wind and algae actually power the whole planet. But also, they can’t explode, can’t be spilled and can’t be used by terrorists. They cannot be “unleashed” by earthquakes.
Those are some of the reasons we need to transition to a clean-energy economy. What are the other reasons? You don’t have to ask; you already know. Here are a few:
- Petro-dictators. Imagine how sweet it would be if we no longer threw cash to corporate giants and terrorists each time we filled our car or our home’s burner went on.
- Price, reliability and self-sustainability. Right now we’re subject to oil shocks caused by political events and foreign price-fixing. When we build the smart grid of the future, it can distribute electricity generated by any means, whether it’s coal or free, clean energy from wind and sunlight and geo-thermal sources.
- Price competition between biomass fuel and food made from the same crops. We can go back to eating food, rather than burning it. The hungry and poor will thankful.
- Peak oil. It won’t last forever. Can we finally start planning for the inevitable?
- Despoliation. Coal companies are still blowing up mountains in a country where children are taught to sing “America The Beautiful.”
- Other pollution. Fossil fuels, wood and other biomass create smog, lung and breathing problems. Nuclear energy creates dangerous waste.
- Jobs. American jobs. Sure other people benefit from getting jobs formerly held by Americans. But why are we doing everything we can to build the economy of the biggest, most anti-democratic, most oppressive government in the world? Why do we tolerate it?
- Leadership. Who builds the energy future will own the future and will sell it to the world. Will it be the United States or China? China knows its answer. We don’t. While China dreams big, America sleepwalks.
So as the horrors in Japan prompt a global reevaluation of the risks of nuclear energy, let’s really work toward a safer energy future.
About Carl Safina
Carl Safina is a MacArthur fellow, Pew fellow, and Guggenheim fellow, he is adjunct professor at Stony Brook University and president of Blue Ocean Institute. His books include Song for the Blue Ocean, The View From Lazy Point and A Sea in Flames, his book abut the 2010 Gulf blowout, among others. He is host of Saving the Ocean on PBS television. www.blueocean.org | www.carlsafina.org
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