The costs and perils of nuclear power are too high to risk.
By Mitchell Beer
Anyone who has watched the nuclear industry with even a slightly critical eye has known somewhere, sooner or later, a calamitous accident would come to define a technology that is too dangerous for humanity to control.
With the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster unfolding day by day, that accident has a name and its victims have hundreds, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of faces.
The full extent of the damage may not be known for some time. But in this crisis, we can already see the deeply fatal flaws that make nuclear energy an option that no country should accept.
- More than 65 years after Japan’s first painful experience with nuclear technology, there is still no reliable way to deal with the waste civilian reactors produce. That may be why the spent fuel rods now beginning to melt at Fukushima Reactor No. 4 were stored on the site. Longer-term disposal is bound to be a headache when the radioactive substances in the inventory remain deadly for up to 240,000 years.
- The high cost of nuclear generation should have been enough to kill this technology and kill it dead. The loan guarantees required to get U.S. utilities to consider nuclear development would make any self-respecting solar or wind developer blush. And in the last week, there’s been speculation cost containment, more than radiation containment, has driven the development of safety procedures at aging nuclear plants in the U.S., 24 of them based on the same design as the Fukushima plant. Could this be why California’s Diablo Canyon facility, located less than a mile from an offshore fault line, had no earthquake plan when it was licensed 25 years ago?
- No amount of advance planning will ever be enough to prevent chains of events no one can reasonably predict. Even if we eventually learn nobody was negligent in designing emergency procedures for the Fukushima facility, that finding will be a small consolation to the victims or the survivors.
Beyond the immediate news from Japan, no international treaty is persuasive enough to prevent a country that is determined to divert spent reactor fuel to build a nuclear weapon. In May 1974, India exploded its first “peaceful” nuclear “device,” using plutonium it recovered from a research reactor Canada supplied in 1956. More recently, Sen. John McCain and others have urged the U.S. to “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” to stop another civilian nuclear program from taking on a military dimension.
In the last several years, the nuclear industry has acquired friends in unexpected places, with some proponents of aggressive action on climate change accepting uranium as a low-carbon option. The trade-off is a Faustian bargain that won’t pay off. Nuclear fails virtually every other test of sustainability, and even as a response to climate change is much less effective and much more expensive than the alternatives. “Nuclear draws precious financial, managerial and technological resources away from the sustainable options,” says energy analyst Ralph Torrie, “but delivers relatively little greenhouse gas reduction in return.”
…cannot brook natural disasters or serious mechanical failures, human mistakes or wilful malevolence. It demands an unprecedented vigilance of our social institutions and demands it for a quarter-million years. At the same time, the use of commercial nuclear power dramatically increases the fragility of human civilization…amounts to acceptance of the inevitable spread of nuclear weapons from nation to nation, and the near-certainty that some nuclear bombs will end up in terrorist hands.
If we knew that 35 years ago, how have we managed to forget it since?
On Ottawa’s local public radio station last week, a business commentator declared the occasional nuclear disaster an acceptable price for a society that wants to avoid the “self-sacrifice” of safer, cleaner technologies. People in Japan today might disagree. But it’s also hard to see the sacrifice in eco-efficiency measures that make industry more profitable, or the wider economy more energy-efficient. In a year that has seen massive disasters at nuclear, coal and offshore oil developments, what more reason could we possibly need to finally, fully embrace a more efficient energy economy based on renewable sources?
About Mitchell Beer
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc. in Ottawa, Canada, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repackaging conference content. He tweets as @mitchellbeer. Beer worked as a reporter and editor at Canadian Renewable Energy News from 1977 to 1981.
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