Twelve days are not nearly enough to comprehend the magnitude of the catastrophes that hit Japan starting March 11. From the children who lost parents in the crush of the earthquake, to those whose loved ones are still missing after the tsunami, to the scores of workers risking their health by heroically attempting to stabilize the Fukushima nuclear complex—there is no end to the tragic stories.
Yet in addition to the grief and empathy I feel for the Japanese people, I am beginning to develop another emotion, and that is anger. As we anxiously await every bit of news about the developments at Fukushima, hoping that radiation leaks and discharges will be brought to an end, that the risk of further catastrophe will be averted, and that the Japanese people will have one less nightmare to cope with, governments across the world continue to promote further investment in nuclear power. Just last week, for example, the government of my home country of South Africa announced that it was adding 9,600 megawatts of nuclear energy to its new energy plan.
There are two dangerous assumptions currently parading themselves as fact in the midst of the ongoing nuclear crisis. The first is that nuclear energy is safe. The second is that nuclear energy is an essential element of a low carbon future, that it is needed to prevent catastrophic climate change. Both are false.
Nuclear technology will always be vulnerable to human error, natural disaster, design failure or terrorist attack. What we are seeing at Fukushima right now are failures of the systems. The reactors themselves withstood the earthquake and tsunami, but then the vital cooling systems failed. When the back-up power systems also failed, the reactors overheated, eventually causing the spread of radiation. This is only one example of what can go wrong.