I’m nothing if not controversial
This week saw the first anniversary of the Earthquake and Tsunami that devastated the east coast of Japan, which I still vividly remember watching – in total disbelief on live TV – as black water filled with burning debris inundated huge swathes of farmland: It was simultaneously mesmerising and sickening in equal measure.
Greenpeace and many other environmental groups made a bug fuss about the ensuing breakdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant but, as with many other things in life, things are never as simple as we would like them to be. Therefore, despite the fact that I am a Greenpeace supporter (e.g. with regard to their ‘Go Beyond Oil’ campaign), I do not agree with their facile opposition to nuclear power. For the time being at least, I wish to remain ambivalent – and here is why:
Fukushima was actually incredibly well designed (to cope with reasonably foreseeable events); and the only reason its defences failed is that the coastline subsided in the 20 minutes between the quake and tsunami hitting it. After that, the failure of the back-up generators became inevitable if fuel supplies were not replenished.
Seismologists reckon that Tokyo will be the next place to be hit by a similarly massive Earthquake so, I agree that the Japanese should close down the nuclear power stations there immediately. However, there is only one problem remaining – Japan does not have many other options; but I am sure it could now invest heavily (global debt crisis permitting) in tidal and wind power…
However, adopting a global perspective, more people die each year putting on their underwear than die from nuclear accidents. Nuclear waste and proliferation risks are problems we cannot magic out of existence and, if we had not given up on Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR) 25 years ago, we would probably have them working by now. If this were the case then, we would now be able to re-process all the long-lived, highly-radioactive waste into a much smaller volume of less radioactive waste that will not remain dangerous for anything like as long. Furthermore, FBR could have solved all our nuclear waste and energy supply problems because conventional thermal nuclear reactors can only use less than 1% of all the Earth’s uranium (i.e. the other 99% can only be used as fuel in FBRs).
Despite all of the above, however, I think the best argument for NOT pursuing nuclear energy is in fact that it is high-tech; and is just another way of perpetuating the dependency of poor countries on Western technology. Therefore, as much as I hope that the use of renewables can be scaled-up to provide for all our future energy needs, in the long run, I think FBR will prove unavoidable. This is because, notwithstanding the decimation of the human population of the planet that may yet be caused by climate change, it seems likely that the global population could be 50% greater than it is today by the end of the century.
If this is indeed what is going to happen then, climate change will continue to erode our ability to grow sufficient food at the same time as we will have to try and feed ever greater numbers of people. This means that we will have to find ways of growing food on land not currently suited to agriculture (e.g. hydroponics), which will lead to the industrialisation of the countryside. In turn, this will mean that food production will have to compete for space with novel means of renewable energy generation that take up a lot of space (e.g. farming algae for biofuel, or solar power stations).
Countries like the UK are extremely lucky to have a very high ratio of coastline per unit land area; so it must be hoped we will make best use of it for tidal power generation schemes. However, many countries will not have the luxury of a choice. Many, therefore, may be forced to buy-in solar power generated on land that is genuinely unusable for anything else (such as the Sahara desert).
For all of these reasons, I agree with those who say that within a 50 to 100 year time horizon, the necessity for widespread deployment of FBR is almost a dead certainty.
So, I’m sorry to all who are anti-Nukes but, this is not an ideal world!
Recommended reading: Blees, T (2008), Prescription for the Planet: The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crises.