The Null Device

Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power

After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, there have been predictable calls for nuclear power to be phased out, now. (For example, the German government, which for all its strengths seems to be more amenable to woolly thinking than most in Europe (they also fund homeopathy, for example), has announced that it is cancelling plans to refurbish nuclear plants.) In contrast, George Monbiot (a journalist known for his solid leftist credentials and strident support of environmental causes) writes that the way the Fukushima disaster unfolded reconsider his opposition to nuclear power:
A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
Some greens have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution. For a clearer view, look at the graphic published by xkcd.com. It shows that the average total dose from the Three Mile Island disaster for someone living within 10 miles of the plant was one 625th of the maximum yearly amount permitted for US radiation workers. This, in turn, is half of the lowest one-year dose clearly linked to an increased cancer risk, which, in its turn, is one 80th of an invariably fatal exposure. I'm not proposing complacency here. I am proposing perspective.
Once one gets over the innately human emotional bias of assigning greater weight to spectacular events (for example, people intuitively consider flying to be more dangerous than driving, because, despite the number of fatalities from road accidents being orders of magnitude higher than from air crashes, the latter are far more spectacular and newsworthy), Monbiot argues, nuclear (at least with modern, passively cooled reactors immune to the sorts of meltdowns that are possible with 1970s-vintage reactors like Fukushima) are the lesser evil compared to fossil fuels, in terms of the environmental impact of generating electricity. Meanwhile, renewables come with their own problems:
At high latitudes like ours, most small-scale ambient power production is a dead loss. Generating solar power in the UK involves a spectacular waste of scarce resources. It's hopelessly inefficient and poorly matched to the pattern of demand. Wind power in populated areas is largely worthless. This is partly because we have built our settlements in sheltered places; partly because turbulence caused by the buildings interferes with the airflow and chews up the mechanism. Micro-hydropower might work for a farmhouse in Wales, but it's not much use in Birmingham.
And how do we drive our textile mills, brick kilns, blast furnaces and electric railways – not to mention advanced industrial processes? Rooftop solar panels? The moment you consider the demands of the whole economy is the moment at which you fall out of love with local energy production. A national (or, better still, international) grid is the essential prerequisite for a largely renewable energy supply.
And as for deep-green pipe-dreams of getting rid of electricity altogether and going back to a bucolic agrarian lifestyle, the problem with this is that the ecological footprint of going without electricity would be far more destructive than that of our current infrastructure:
The damming and weiring of British rivers for watermills was small-scale, renewable, picturesque and devastating. By blocking the rivers and silting up the spawning beds, they helped bring to an end the gigantic runs of migratory fish that were once among our great natural spectacles and which fed much of Britain – wiping out sturgeon, lampreys and shad, as well as most sea trout and salmon.
Before coal became widely available, wood was used not just for heating homes but also for industrial processes: if half the land surface of Britain had been covered with woodland, Wrigley shows, we could have made 1.25m tonnes of bar iron a year (a fraction of current consumption) and nothing else. Even with a much lower population than today's, manufactured goods in the land-based economy were the preserve of the elite. Deep green energy production – decentralised, based on the products of the land – is far more damaging to humanity than nuclear meltdown.
So, short of advocating human extinction for ecological reasons, the only option is technological progress; of improving the technologies of energy generation to make it more efficient. And, in the foreseeable future, this will include either nuclear power or fossil fuels.

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