I was asked to reflect very briefly (<400 words) on the implications of Fukushima Daiichi to my local city newspaper, The Adelaide Advertiser. The focus was on what it means for Australia, but the basic message resonates for any number of other countries.
If you study the history of modern energy, there is only one conclusion you can reach. You can have fossil fuels, or two alternatives: nuclear power and hydroelectricity.
A number of countries in Europe rely almost exclusively on either nuclear power (France), hydro (Norway), or an even mix of the two (Sweden, Switzerland). These are truly low-carbon economies.
What of Denmark, which has taken the wind route? It only gets 20 per cent of its electricity from wind, but must also sell it cheaply to the rest of Scandinavia when production is higher than demand, and buy in coal-fired electricity when there is little wind.
Even with 20 per cent wind, Denmark has among the highest greenhouse gas emissions per person in Europe. France has among the lowest.
Australia has no access to large-scale hydro. We do have abundant uranium, and a high technology society in a geologically stable region, all perfect for the deployment of nuclear power.
Or, we can burn more coal and gas. It’s nuclear power, or it’s climate change.
What of the solar and wind dream? I sure hope they work out, and can provide a lot more energy for us in the future. But history is not on their side. No country has displaced its fossil fuel fleet in the past by using these energy sources, for a number of practical engineering and economic reasons.
One has to be an extreme optimist to imagine that this reality – this lesson of history – is going to miraculously change in the coming decades.
I try to address these issues from a scientific perspective. I get no money from nuclear, uranium, coal, gas, solar or wind industries. I talk about these issues in public because I think the public debate ought to be based on real-world evidence and robust analysis – not hype, spin and ideology.
Prior to the Fukushima Daiichi accident, caused when a 14 metre tsunami crashed into a 40-year old power station in Japan, no member of the public had ever been killed by nuclear power in an OECD country.
As of today, that record remains unchanged. When small risk is weighed against great and proven benefits, nuclear power is an obvious choice.
I wonder why Australia still isn’t taking it seriously.
I’ll have a lot more to say on this in the coming weeks.
Oh, and for those who didn’t see it, you should also read George Monbiot’s decision: How the Fukushima disaster taught me to stop worrying and embrace nuclear power. His conclusion:
There are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.