The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi is not good. The situation is so chaotic that reporting even basic facts about what is happening is difficult, though that situation seems to be getting better each day. Understanding those facts is another matter entirely. What is the worst case scenario? Who knows, but it wont be pretty.
So it should come as no surprise that the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi has stirred up controversy on Nuclear power across the pacific and indeed in much of the the world. And while the situation in Japan makes it obvious that nuclear power comes with real risks, a key question is not being asked: “Risks compared to what?”
No source of electricity is 100% safe. For example:
The OECD’s 2008 Environmental Outlook calculated that fine-particle outdoor air pollution caused nearly 1 million premature deaths in the year 2000, and 30 percent of this was energy-related.
Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institutecalculates that from 1969 to 2000, more than 20,000 people died in severe accidents in the oil supply chain. More than 15,000 people died in severe accidents in the coal supply chain—11,000 in China alone.
And hydro electric accidents kill more people than all other forms of energy disasters combined.
The sole fatal nuclear power accident of the last 40 years, Chernobyl, directly killed 31 people.
Even accounting from all the possible premature deaths due to the release of radiation, nuclear doesn’t come out as the worst of the bunch. And since Chernobyl things have gotten a lot safer. In fact things have gotten a lot safer than the problematic reactors in Japan, which were built by General electric and have a long history of safety issues:
Thirty-five years ago, Dale G. Bridenbaugh and two of his colleagues at General Electric resigned from their jobs after becoming increasingly convinced that the nuclear reactor design they were reviewing — the Mark 1 — was so flawed it could lead to a devastating accident.
Questions persisted for decades about the ability of the Mark 1 to handle the immense pressures that would result if the reactor lost cooling power, and today that design is being put to the ultimate test in Japan. Five of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which has been wracked since Friday’s earthquake with explosions and radiation leaks, are Mark 1s.
Needless to say current reactors are safer than the 40 year old reactors at Fukushima Daiichi.
Which is precisely why what is happening in Japan should have little bearing on current discussions on building more nuclear reactors. After all no one is suggesting we build reactors based on 40 year old technology.
Instead we need to look at the risk profile of the nuclear reactors currently being proposed and compare the costs and benefits of that nuclear technology with other power generating options available.
In some cases I am certain that nuclear will come out the clear winner, but in many more cases, I suspect it wont. Nuclear is expensive, and getting more so, while other renewables continue to drop in prices:
Each gigawatt reactor costs upwards of $14 billion these days. And climbing. As the increasingly useful Climopedia at Climate Central puts it: “the question on many peoples’ minds today is not what the last nuclear power plant cost, but rather what the next nuclear plant will cost to build.” And no one wants to put up a loan for a project with unknown costs. This is why utilities keep trying to get state regulators to let them hike electricity rates before they even get approval to build a new nuclear power plant; the usual sources of major infrastructure funding won’t touch these things.
Add to that the cost of dealing with nuclear waste, and you get a situation where nuclear only really looks good against coal fired power plants, which both produce more greenhouse gasses and kill more people. Or as George Monbiot put it:
While nuclear causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right, and coal goes right a lot more often than nuclear goes wrong.
So lets push for a sensible discussion that includes all forms of energy production and examine the costs and benefits of them all.
Lets drop the pro/anti-nuclear dichotomy and instead focus on finding the sources of energy that do the least harm to the environment and are produced as cheaply as possible.
Sometimes that will be nuclear, but mostly it will be something else.