As many BNC readers already know, I was invited to write an opinion essay for ABC Environment and The Drum: Unleashed on the Fukushima situation as we approach the end of 2011. On the latter site, the essay was entitled “Fukushima, nuclear and the rational approach to energy” and drew >300 comments (many rather heated) before the post was closed after 24 hours. Anyway, here’s a chance for you to continue to conversation, and perhaps to provide a correction to some of the more… unenlightened… comments that appeared over on the ABC stream.
It’s been quite a year for nuclear power. The dramatic events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in north-east Japan March and April 2011, following the Great Tōhoku Earthquake and tsunami, made headlines around the world. It constituted the most significant nuclear emergency in 25 years.
Nine months on, engineers continue to work to secure the plant and transition to a state termed ‘cold shutdown’, whereby the radioactively decaying reactor fuel is consistently cooled to below 100°C. The mangled reactor buildings now have new protective shells to keep out the weather, and an elaborate water purification system on site is working steady to decontaminate the large amount of contaminated cooling water that accumulated in holding tanks during the months following the accident.
The evacuation zone of 20 km around the plant remains in place, with more than 100,000 people displaced. There are medium-term plans to scrape away the topsoil in those ‘hotspots’ where radioactive cesium-137 was deposited (somewhat randomly) by the winds, following steam venting and the hydrogen explosions that occurred in the first week of the crisis. Once this is done, it is probable that residents will be allowed to return to the tsunami- and earthquake-ravaged area, to rebuild their lives.
I say ‘probable’ because a particular personal lesson for me from the events at Fukushima was that one can never be definite about anything involving major industrial, engineering and socio-political events! Indeed, I wrote the following on March 12, just a few hours before the first hydrogen explosion:
I don’t know the full situation… [but the reactors] have just performed robustly in the face of the worst earthquake ever to strike the Japanese islands. The risk of meltdown is extremely small, and the death toll from any such accident, even if it occurred, will be zero. There will be no breach of containment and no release of radioactivity beyond, at the very most, some venting of mildly radioactive steam to relieve pressure. Those spreading FUD at the moment will be the ones left with egg on their faces.
Well, no one was killed by radioactivity from the event, but it was still an incredibly disruptive accident and I clearly got all the other predictions wrong. Ignorant as I was at that time of the seriousness of the damage the tsunami had inflicted on the backup generators, I suffered from unconscionable hubris (an all too common ailment), and it was me who ended up with the omelette mask. On reflection, it is clear that in my haste to defend what I assess to be a relatively safe low-carbon energy source (relative, that is, to all other effective, large-scale electricity-generation options), I failed to imagine the unimaginable.
This heavenly manna, of course, delighted anti-nuclear campaigners like Dr. Jim Green, who made all they could of this. Although the fantastical yet never-realised doom-and-gloom predictions that followed from the anti-nuclear crowd was often eye-poppingly bizarre, they could always say in their defense ‘Ahh, but it could have happened…’, whereas my early speculation was quickly proven false.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Fukushima crisis has not diminished my conviction that nuclear energy will need to fulfill a major role in moving the world away from fossil fuels in the coming decades. Renewable energy will also have an important role, but won’t be enough. We’ve just got to try and be rational, honest and pragmatic about the scale of the greenhouse problem, and of the maturity, scalability, reliability and relative cost of the non-fossil-fuel options available to us. Yes, nuclear power has problems – which can be mitigated but not eliminated with new technology – but then so do large-scale renewables, massive requirements for energy storage, carbon-capture, geoengineering. Trade-offs must be faced up to, not fobbed off, and uncertainties need to be acknowledged, including having a plan B (or N). The new draft Energy White Paper for Australia, released this week, says as much.
So I haven’t really changed my views on energy options for avoiding dangerous climate change – I’ve just become more circumspect in making predictions. But what might be surprising to some is that a number of prominent environmentalists who were anti-nuclear prior to Fukushima have been provoked to look hard at the issue and, on the basis of evidence and logic, have indeed altered their stance.
Among them is formerly anti-nuclear George Monbiot, who, writing in The Guardian this month, said:
Anti-nuclear campaigners have generated as much mumbo jumbo as creationists, anti-vaccine scaremongers, homeopaths and climate change deniers. In all cases, the scientific process has been thrown into reverse: people have begun with their conclusions, then frantically sought evidence to support them.
Quite so. As the conversation around nuclear power in Australia and worldwide builds, fear will give way to a desire for information. In a fact-based discussion on safety, economics, reliability and comparative performance in doing the job of displacing fossil fuels, nuclear proponents need not be concerned.