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Fukushima renews nuclear debate, questions anew our capacity to manage

18 April 2011

Fukushima nuclear power plant after tsunami and explosion. Photo credit: http://www.policymic.com/

José Ignacio García

A few months ago this editorial would sound too eccentric, radical and probably old fashioned for questioning the possibilities of nuclear energy as a serious alternative in the so called “energy mix.” That’s the combination of all sources that satisfy the energy needs of a country.

After years of suspicion and protest campaigns against nuclear power, its proponents seemed to have overcome the bad image and nuclear energy began to mingle with other energy sources in equal basis or even better. And because of the economic crisis in which most developed economies are immersed, apart from the volatility in oil prices and possible shortages in future, all these factors are placing nuclear power as a worthy alternative to be taken into account.

However, the earthquake in Japan last 11th March and the subsequent tsunami caused a serious breakdown in the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Japanese authorities have stated that the accident has reached level 7, the maximum on the INES scale of the International Atomic Energy Agency. This is the same level reached by the accident at the Chernobyl plant in 1986. Although all the impacts are not yet known, especially those related to radioactivity, the evacuation area is now within a perimeter of 30 kilometers. We are anxiously following all the efforts to control the situation and prevent further damage, albeit unsuccessfully.

Japan has suffered a terrible tragedy; tens of thousands are dead or missing. Japan has a high reputation as a country prepared to withstand earthquakes. The country’s architectural and building codes are well suited to make buildings and infrastructure resistant to these phenomena and people are routinely trained to respond to these situations. Again, television images have allowed us to admire the disciplined and responsible behavior of the Japanese people.

The nuclear debate seemed out of the picture but Fukushima has renewed the focus of concern. Until recently, governments all over the world announced plans to build new nuclear plants or to prolong the life of existing plants. In fact, the International Energy Agency in the World Energy Outlook 2010, expected that by 2035, the world nuclear capacity would increase from the present 390 gigawatts (GW) to 750 GW, nearly double. Only China is building 27 new nuclear plants.

Today, expectations are less ambitious and eyes turn towards renewable energies, gas, and coal. This is what a mix means – if an element diminishes, the other increases their proportion. But what is definitely increasing is the global energy consumption: excessive in the developed countries and unstoppable in the emerging ones.

Surprisingly, there is nothing new in the debate on nuclear energy for civilian use. The enormous cost of the facilities, usually subsidized, are amortized only by the long life of the plants, thereby increasing their risks. These risks of daily management of the plants are covered by the dark cloak of safety and technological sophistication that make impossible any control, limited to highly qualified technicians with their highly qualified supervisors. For normal activities, their operations and supervision may be sufficient, but in emergency situations, other minds have to come in who may not necessarily share the same positive vision for nuclear energy.

Also, the management of the radioactive waste does not meet the most basic sustainability criteria for transferring a technically complex and costly problem to future generations.
Crisis management, as is being seen in Fukushima, is far from being solved. On the contrary, every day we find out new improvisations like pouring thousands of gallons of radioactive contaminated water into the sea without any estimation of its effects. Another non-minor issue is the cost of dismantling nuclear facilities, not during emergencies, but in an orderly process. This is another huge cost added, without mentioning again the waste of the installations.

There is nothing new about an old debate, or maybe yes. Perhaps the Fukushima accident has shown us that our risk management is inefficient. The odds that a level 9 earthquake and a tsunami with waves of 10 meters will occur were probably close to zero. It was a scenario unimaginable, yet it occurred.

And when these events happen, in addition to the obvious and terrible damage, these situations become an X-ray that exposes our structures, not only the material but also the social. In this case, we can see how we have become involved with a technology that we simply cannot control.

We can manage during optimal conditions of course, otherwise it would be absurd. But we are unable to do so in emergency situations and we know that these situations can occur even in highly prepared countries like Japan. Even the technological reasoning has to recognize that nuclear energy outweighs the reasonably acceptable risks; this itself is the novelty of Fukushima.

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One Response to Fukushima renews nuclear debate, questions anew our capacity to manage

  1. Bob Dundon on 19 April 2011 at 9:29 am

    Thanks. I don’t think that opposing the expansion of nuclear electricity generation will go anywhere, unfortunately, but we have to give it a try. Energy conservation is what is required right now. As a Jesuit working in Nigeria, where we have plenty of natural gas, I think the Fukushima tragedy will silence any enthusiasts for nuclear electricity in Nigeria. I hope that it will have the same effect in Ghana.

    I think that the conservation of fossil fuel is also very, very urgent and has equally slender chances of happening.

    Keep up your good work.

    In Christ,
    Bob Dundon [ANW]

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