There is disagreement, even among environmentalists, about the place of nuclear power in our future. Because there is no question that nuclear emits less carbon pollution than burning oil or coal, some environmentalists – including high-profile ones such as James Lovelock and George Monbiot – have become nuclear power proponents. What the disaster in Japan highlights is that nuclear is just too risky to depend on. From a risk management perspective, as Fukushima makes clear, we can’t bet on nuclear. Canadian folk singer Bob Bossin said decades ago that building nuclear plants is like putting up an outhouse without digging a hole! Nobody yet has figured out what do to about all that spent radioactive fuel, although Atomic Energy Canada has decided they’d like to bury it in the rocks of the Canadian shield, right in my backyard. I don’t trust that there is any technology that can guarantee that buried toxic waste isn’t going to contaminate the groundwater – our drinking water – at some point in the next 1,000 years.
What is the latest on Fukushima? As of today, radiation levels within the 40-km radius of Fukushima NPP have exceeded safety limits, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said. Radiation levels continue to rise in the ocean outside the plant as well. This isn’t surprising, as the Japanese continue to pour water on the fuel rods to limit the damage, but this water is ending up outside the plant in the ocean, and also is being carried onto land via steam and ground water. Bloomberg reports today:
Japan’s damaged nuclear plant may be in danger of emitting sudden bursts of heat and radiation, undermining efforts to cool the reactors and contain fallout.
The potential for limited, uncontrolled chain reactions, voiced yesterday by the International Atomic Energy Agency, is among the phenomena that might occur, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters in Tokyo today. The IAEA “emphasized that the nuclear reactors won’t explode,” he said.
At the same time,the death toll from the quake and tsunami continues to rise and officials say it’s likely to yet surpass 18,000 and hundreds of thousands of people remain homeless.
We are all going to be faced with difficult questions as peak oil and climate change confront our civilization with choices about how to power our homes and our industries. I’m with Thomas Edison, who said:
I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait ’til oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
Don’t think solar power can do it? This week, a team of MIT scientists announced the latest development in solar energy, an artificial leaf, so innovative that the lead scientist, Daniel Nocera, stated: “I’m talking about solving the energy problem with an Olympic size pool of water.”
I think the people of Fukushima would like to bet on Nocera’s solution to their energy needs, rather than extremely expensive nuclear plants that post a serious health risk to the people and the ecosystem of their region for centuries to come. I know I would!
For a more thorough review of the Japanese situation, as well as the current situation in Ontario (and how the two are – or should be – related), go to Graham Saunder’s article, “Nuclear Decisions. Graham is the president of Environment North and a weather specialist.