Forgetting Fukushima?

Feature story - March 24, 2011
Less than two weeks ago, the world's community was united in grief following the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the country's escalating nuclear crisis. But in the past seven days, a national and global tragedy has been overshadowed by attempts by the nuclear industry to turn a crisis into a pro-nuclear crusade.

From the usual suspects to recent converts, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Fukushima served as a free promotional ad for the nuclear industry and not a salient warning against the world's most expensive and dangerous method ever invented for boiling water.

Despite the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, workers with radiation lesions, bans on eating local vegetables, and warnings that Tokyo's tap water is not safe for infants, the nuclear industry is actually trying to spin the crisis as a success story for nuclear power. Many are asking us to weigh nuclear against fossil fuels, and using comparisons with the mortality rates per terawatt hour caused by coal to cast Fukushima in a more flattering light. 

Even among environmentalists, it's not uncommon for people who are aware of the health issues, the safety problems, the terrorist risks, and the waste dilemma to see all the ills of nuclear power as a lesser evil than climate change.

There is logic in that.

If you weigh the human, environmental and financial costs of Fukushima against the costs of more CO2 from coal and oil -- vanishing island nations, crop failures, worldwide drought, millions of climate refugees, more frequent and severe climatic events, -- surely, we would pay the price of several Fukushimas to avoid the true horrors of runaway climate change.

In examining this position, let's set aside the dangers of nuclear power entirely. Let's accept the satirical assurances of the Onion that nuclear power is 100% safe, "unless anything bad happens."

Let's agree that the media is overhyping the dangers of radioactive contamination, and that hundreds of thousands of people have been unnecessarily evacuated from their homes.

Let's pretend that nuclear power plants are not prone to human error, or technical failure, or natural disasters.

Let's say they aren't targets for terrorists or proliferation risks. Let's imagine we have a solution to the problem of radioactive waste.

Let's set all that aside and say we can accept every one of those problems and risks in the name of stopping catastrophic climate change.

Surely, in this scenario, nuclear energy is the answer we seek?

Except that it's not…

Even if it were 100% clean, 100% safe, and 100% foolproof, nuclear power can do little or nothing in the fight against climate change.

Nuclear power is used only to generate electricity. It doesn't run our cars, our planes, our trucks or our container ships. Electricity itself only accounts for around one third of greenhouse gases created by mankind. Nuclear energy today produces less than 6% of global energy consumption.

The International Energy Agency has looked into future energy scenarios and concluded that if existing world nuclear power capacity could be quadrupled by 2050 its share of world energy consumption would still be below 10%. This would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by less than 4%. (Source: Energy Technology Perspectives 2010, IEA/OECD, June 2010)

Still. Every percentage shaved off of our ambitious CO2 reduction targets is a big thing, right? So let's say we set a target of quadrupling nuclear power capacity.

We'd best get started soon - to reach this target would mean building a new reactor every 10 days from now until 2050.

Given that the average construction time for nuclear plants now stands at 116 months - according to the World Energy Council - it would seem unlikely that nuclear power plants could be built fast enough to make a difference. We have only a few years left before greenhouse gas emissions need to peak and start to decline, so that we can avoid catastrophic climate change.

But let's continue to give this option the benefit of the doubt. Let's pretend nuclear reactors are safe AND foolproof AND we've solved the waste problem AND they're not terrorist targets AND that we can build a new reactor every ten days from now until 2050 in order to reduce greenhouse gases by 4%.

If we eliminate coal and gas from our option list, surely we have no alternative. There are times the wind doesn't blow, and places the sun doesn't shine. Wind and solar, cute and cuddly as they may be, aren't reliable enough to meet our needs. Right?

You'd be surprised.

Electrical grids today are built to adjust to the kinds of variation in supply that comes from "intermittent" sources like wind and solar. In fact, electricity supply and demand both vary, and grids routinely examine available electrical sources, draw from those that are providing power and skip over those that are offline: they adjust to constantly fluctuating supply to meet constantly fluctuating demand, and can deliver power from suppliers thousands of kilometers away.

Solar photovoltaic and wind supply do vary (often conversely) with how much sun and wind are available. But once a network of wind turbines and solar farms connected by an efficient grid becomes widely enough dispersed, it stops being "intermittent" -- it's always blowing or shining somewhere. You can also add to that mix unvarying renewable supplies like bio energy, hydro, and geothermal.

Modern renewable systems also have ways of banking energy. Thanks to heat storage systems, solar power can actually deliver electricity at night. Hydro storage can allow wind turbines to store energy by pumping water into holding tanks on windy days, and letting the water flow past hydroelectric generators on days without wind.

This isn't theory: it's happening. In Spain today, 35% of the energy mix is coming from renewables -- 16% of it from wind. Portugal shifted its electrical grid from 15% to 45% renewables in the space of just 5 years. Germany's installed solar capacity is greater than all six of the Fukushima reactors combined.

Greenpeace and the European Renewable Energy Council have developed an energy scenario which delivers the world's energy supply with 95% renewables by 2050: reliable energy with more jobs, more equitable power distribution, and no "peak solar" or "peak wind" fuel price variations. Under this plan, no new nuclear reactors are built. Currently operating plants are phased out. About two thirds of those currently under construction are mothballed.

So this brings us around to the core issue: if nuclear power isn't necessary to solving the climate crisis, we're no longer forced to weigh the awful consequences of climate change against the awful consequences of Chernobyl and Fukushima. In fact, we're paying an exorbitant human, environmental, and financial price, and taking even bigger risks, for zero benefit in the fight against climate change.

It's time to change course.

We can stop building new nuclear power plants.

We can phase out existing nuclear power plants.

We can make an Energy [R]evolution happen.

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Additional resources

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