Nuclear power: After the flood

March 16, 2011 - 0:0

The flattening of the whole town of Minamisanriku and the washing-up of thousands of bodies on the shores of the Miyagi prefecture are more than anything a human tragedy. But for westerners accustomed to marveling at ingenious Japanese technical solutions to all manner of smaller problems, the unfolding horrors are something else too: a reminder of the frailty of the physical thread by which our whole civilization hangs. Even without the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the other terrifying images would have stirred skepticism about human attempts to harness forces greater than themselves.

As it turned out, the great hydrogen blasts at reactors one and three were Monday followed by a more dangerous failure of the cooling system in reactor two. The hundreds of millions of half-informed voters across the rich world, on whom consent for nuclear power ultimately rests, gazed on -- bemused by the International Atomic Energy Authority's ill-judged attempt to soothe nerves by pointing to the dozens of Japanese reactors that had not blown up, and hoping against hope that the pumping of sea water into reactor two was not quite as desperate a measure as it sounded. In Japan, there will soon be fierce arguments about why so many reactors are built on the coast, and why any were placed near seismic faultlines. A wider debate is already echoing far beyond its shores. In Germany, where history instills an instinctive distaste for grand scientific and political claims about brave new worlds, the longstanding unpopularity of nuclear power is deepening. As editorialists picked up their pens Monday, Angela Merkel qualified her pro-nuclear leanings, putting all her plans up for review and suggesting that everything needed thinking through afresh after the Japanese flood.
Closer to home the energy secretary Chris Huhne is mulling over the collapse of the “couldn't happen here” argument. It may have washed with Chernobyl in Soviet Ukraine but will not survive if the worst-case scenario plays out in high-tech Japan. That may still not happen, and if even the mix of an 9.0 magnitude earthquake, an accompanying tsunami and a hydrogen explosion does not cause lethal meltdown, then the balance of the rational argument could conceivably be more in favor of nuclear in a month's time than it is today (Tuesday). But as one of two Liberal Democrat cabinet ministers landed with implementing outright breaches of the party's manifesto -- the other being Vince Cable on student finances -- the ambitious Mr. Huhne is well aware that scientific factors are not the only ones involved here. He may be keen to find reason to re-close a mind that only recently opened to the nuclear option.
For all the emotive force of events in Japan, though, this is one issue where there is a pressing need to listen to what our heads say about the needs of the future, as opposed to subjecting ourselves to jittery whims of the heart. One of the few solid lessons to emerge from the aged Fukushima plant is that the tendency in Britain and elsewhere to postpone politically painful choices about building new nuclear stations by extending the life-spans of existing ones is dangerous. Beyond that, with or without Fukushima, the undisputed nastiness of nuclear -- the costs, the risks and the waste -- still need to be carefully weighed in the balance against the different poisons pumped out by coal, which remains the chief economic alternative.
Most of the easy third ways are illusions. Energy efficiency has been improving for over 200 years, but it has worked to increase not curb demand. Off-shore wind remains so costly that market forces would simply push pollution overseas if it were taken up in a big way. A massive expansion of shale gas may yet pave the way to a plausible non-nuclear future, and it certainly warrants close examination. The fundamentals of the difficult decisions ahead, however, have not moved with the Earth.