As the nuclear crisis in Fukushima winds down and the stricken reactors come under control, questions have begun to emerge about the overall safety about the nuclear industry.
Public opinion in the west has been drifting away from nuclear power as a viable energy source ever since the near-disaster at Three Mile Island. This latest accident only reinforces such skepticism. The perceived danger, however, is much higher than the true risks of nuclear power.
As a new global middle class emerges, demand for energy will skyrocket, and meeting these needs is contingent on the perpetuation of nuclear power. Largely emissions-free, and unlikely to run out in the near future, nuclear power remains the safest conventional and available means of generation.
Michael Golay, professor of Nuclear Energy at MIT, warned that “the greatest nuclear-related harm of the Japanese earthquake may be the lost opportunities for nuclear power in reducing climate change.” The public perception of nuclear energy, worsened by this crisis, is due for a serious readjustment.
A recent study by the Lifeboat Foundation concluded that nuclear power is the safest major form of energy generation in use today. “For every one person killed because of nuclear energy production, 900 die to produce the equivalent amount of energy from oil.” The figure skyrockets to an astounding 4000 equivalent deaths for coal production.
Living next to a nuclear power plant, long considered dangerous to one’s health, has a negligible impact on radiation exposure. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that the average person is exposed to a radiation level of 620 millirems per year, while living near a plant will typically only increase the radiation level by 1 millirem. For a chart that puts all the hyperbolic talk of radiation in perspective, one need only look at the graphic at http://xkcd.com/radiation.
The risks of conventional nuclear power, it would appear, are dwarfed by those encountered in extracting fossil fuels. Surely nuclear accidents make up for this difference, justifying the public’s distrust of nuclear energy? Not exactly.
While the long-term effects of the Japanese nuclear meltdown will not be immediately evident, the Dai-ichi plant explosion has claimed a grand total of 0 confirmed victims. Even the most destructive nuclear explosion in history, the meltdown at Chernobyl, only resulted in 43 directly attributable deaths; to compare, 48 coal miners died on the job in the US alone last year. Predictably, the nuclear effects of the catastrophe in Japan, while undeniably tragic, have been overblown by those with a vested interest in the matter.
Anti-nuclear activists for years have been looking for an excuse to limit the spread of nuclear power, and have seized upon this disaster as vital to their cause. Efforts to contain nuclear power have been suffering from a lack of public support recently, the last major accident having come over two decades ago. In the wake of disaster, it has become all the rage for politicians to institute drastic and impractical measures that ostensibly lessen risks of future accidents, but they often are poorly thought out and unrealistic in their goals.
A prime example is Obama’s hasty deepwater drilling moratorium instituted in May after the BP oil spill: it quickly became clear that the measure hampered the Gulf region’s recovery by cutting a vital source of income and shedding as many as 12,000 jobs, according to a report by the Department of the Interior.
The moratorium was suspended a month early, as it emerged that the move was a political one, designed to cash in on public anxieties. Turmoil in the Middle East, a reminder of the fragility of American oil, has more or less restored the discussion on oil to its pre-spill state.
The nuclear crisis has spawned its very own share of reactionary policies, even in the most nuclear-friendly countries. Newly ambitious China, pursuing an expansionary nuclear policy, has announced recently that it is lowering its target of 80 Giga Watts of nuclear capacity by 2020, partially offsetting this change by an increased wind initiative. The sheer expected energy requirements will simply not be met by wind and solar, likely resulting in a higher dependence on coal and gas reserves.
Seven nuclear reactors in Germany that were deemed safe before the Dai-ichi meltdown have seen their status reevaluated, not to open again. In the UK the energy secretary has launched an official investigation into the susceptibility of nuclear plants to earthquakes, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the tremor in Japan was over 100,000 times more powerful than Britain’s strongest ever earthquake.
While the Huhne inquiry and similar initiatives abroad will in all probability yield only tighter regulation, this will impact the nuclear industry. Already saddled by high costs, harsher regulations vastly increase the expense of building a nuclear power plant. Thus pandering to public opinion takes a dangerous turn as inflated discourse and exaggerated fears claim a very real victim.
This matter is not one of merely academic interest either. Nuclear power currently accounts for 14% of the world’s energy usage, providing a proven, dependable, and clean alternative to the fossil fuels that absolutely must be phased out in the long term if the planet is to remain habitable.
The UN Environment Programme found in 2010 that nuclear energy reduced CO2 emissions in 2009 by 2 billion tonnes out of a total of 11 billion for worldwide electricity generation, a figure that absolutely must be expanded if we are to stop the world warming beyond an irreversible threshold. Wind, solar, and geothermal energy currently account for 0.9% of current global supply, and even the most ambitious programs cannot elevate them to the status of feasible substitutes in a timely manner.
While the Economist may call nuclear power “dangerous, unpopular, expensive and risky,” it must be included in a long-term solution for the perpetuation of life on this planet. Now more than ever, we cannot afford to forget that reality.