First published on CSRwire.
Japan’s tsunami is a horrific tragedy of staggering human and economic proportions. It is also as natural a disaster as humanity can still suffer. Its cause is shifting plates in Earth’s crust. It has nothing to do with greenhouse gases or global warming, which now casts suspicion on whether weather-related disasters are entirely natural or partially human-caused (Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico, or the more recent droughts that have helped push up food prices, may reflect humanly influenced atmospheric change).
Natural or not, the tsunami will, however, force reevaluation of energy options that have implications for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Atomic energy is probably the most scaled-up, ready-to-go alternative to conventional combustion-based technologies requiring petroleum or coal.
That’s old news, of course. And that’s the problem.
Decades after we saw the need for alternative fuels—we have scant options. More than anywhere else, Japan’s engineers build with earthquakes in mind. In the case of the earthquake-induced problems at its nuclear reactors, no one is really at fault. Sometimes someone is at fault, as with last year’s Gulf of Mexico BP oil well blowout. In the latter case, fault lies with the bad judgment of the people involved. In Japan’s case, the fault is a geological one.
What these two very different circumstances—faultiness and faultlessness—have in common is: accidents happen.
So for me the way I’ve been thinking of it is that among the many reasons we need to transition to a clean-energy economy is the magnitude of inherent risks. Not the frequency of accidents—which are rather rare—but the severity of the inevitable accidents.
The nuclear-energy risks are quite dangerous. As are the increasing risks from oil as we go to deeper waters where controlling blowouts is extremely difficult and takes months. Fracking for natural gas has been called safe, but its safety is increasingly being challenged by indications that it can pollute drinking water supplies, including New York City’s. Coal is putting mercury in fish, largely changing the heat balance of the planet, and acidifying the ocean.
Clean energies like sunlight, tides, the heat of the Earth, wind, and algae actually power the whole planet. But also, they can’t explode, can’t be spilled, and can’t be used by terrorists. They cannot be “unleashed” by earthquakes.
Those are some of the reasons we need to transition to a clean-energy economy. What are the other reasons? You don’t have to ask; you already know. Here are a few:
- Petro-dictators. Imagine how sweet it would be if we no longer threw cash to monsters and terrorists each time we filled our car or our home’s burner went on.
- Price, reliability and self-sustainability. Right now, we’re subject to oil shocks caused by political events and foreign price-fixing. When we build the smart grid of the future, it can distribute electricity generated by any means, whether it’s coal or free, clean energy from wind and sunlight and geo-thermal sources.
- Price competition between biomass fuel and food made from the same crops. We can go back to eating food, rather than burning it. Hungry, poor people will thank us.
- Peak oil. It won’t last forever. Can we finally start planning for the inevitable?
- Despoilation. Coal companies are still blowing up mountains in a country where children are taught to sing America The Beautiful.
- Other pollution. Fossil fuels, wood, and other biomass create smog, lung and breathing problems. Nuclear energy creates dangerous waste.
- Jobs. American jobs. Sure other people benefit from getting jobs formerly held by Americans. But why are we doing everything we can to build the economy of the biggest, most anti-democratic, most oppressive government in the world? Why do we tolerate it?
- Leadership. Who builds the energy future will own the future and will sell it to the world. Will it be the United States or China? China knows its answer. We don’t. While China dreams big, America sleep-walks.
So as the horrors in Japan prompt to a global reevaluation of the risks of nuclear energy, let’s really work toward a safer energy future.
My colleague the veteran film producer John Angier begs to differ with me. He adds:
Carl — I don’t agree with your diagnosis that in Japan the fault is purely geological. With the unfolding nuclear disaster it’s humans who were the problem, because the reactors were faultily planned in the first place. They knew they were in a seismic zone, they knew that there was a tsunami risk, and they knew that both could hit the reactors at the same time. The chain of events that led to the meltdowns was totally predictable — first, an earthquake knocks out the grid, so backup diesels kick in to run the cooling pumps; next a tsunami floods the diesels, which are conveniently located in the basement; and finally, they can’t hook up portable generators, because all the wiring is, where? Right, it’s in the basement. So they’re reduced to trying to flood the reactors with seawater pumped in with portable fire pumps, which then run out of fuel.
It’s a human-induced disaster all the way, and it’s ramifications are going to spread far more widely than the radioactivity that is right now wafting across Japan. It’s going global, because countries everywhere will now pull back on plans for new nuclear power plants, which are an essential component of any recipe which has a chance of getting us off fossil fuels any time soon. The Japanese (and GE) nuclear designers just made climate change worse.
The big shame in all this is that nuclear power could have been a terrific benefit to humankind, but it was mishandled from the start. Safe reactors are possible, waste can be handled safely… but that’s another story.
It’s all very sad, I must say. Ever since I learned the physics of the fission reaction I’ve been enchanted by the promise of this power of nature, but somehow we humans have managed once again to screw something up, and the promise was never fulfilled.
And then there’s the possibility that as global warming causes ice to melt, the responding Earth’s crust could trigger more earthquakes: “When the ice is lost, the earth’s crust bounces back up again and that triggers earthquakes, which trigger submarine landslides, which cause tsunamis,” Bill McGuire, professor at University College London, told Reuters. See also: Grist.org.