Saturday, March 19, 2011

On Nuclear Power

This article is typical of a lot of the commentary I've read about the potential meltdown at Fukushima. Apparently, the ongoing incident is a damning indictment at best, or death knell at worst, of the nuclear power industry. My problem with this idea is that I can't quite figure out why this should be the case.

Let's do a quick recap. A massive earthquake - followed by a massive tsunami - hits Japan. It is the biggest earthquake Japan has faced in recorded history. Entire settlements - including towns - are wiped out in the sort of disaster that could be described as biblical. It is an utterly appalling calamity. And a nuclear station is hit by a series of explosions. And - crucially - said nuclear power station does not go into meltdown.

Of course, there has been a concerted effort to minimise the damage caused by the impact of the disaster on Fukushima, and there are no guarantees of a calamity occurring there tomorrow. But honest to God that nuclear power station did pretty well in the face of a devastating disaster.

Yet, somehow, this is meant to be some sort of damning indictment of the nuclear industry, and a clear indication of why more nuclear power stations would be a bad idea. Why, I might hear you ask?

I think part of the reason is that there is still a tendency to conflate nuclear power with nuclear bombs. Now, I can understand the fear of nuclear bombs - hell, I'm as afraid of weapons of massive destruction as the next person - but nuclear power is not the same as nuclear weaponry. Unless the petrol that goes in your car is the same as the petrol that goes in a molotov cocktail. The crucial point is in the intent - a petrol bomb, like a nuclear bomb, is meant to destroy. A petrol powered engine, like a nuclear reactor, is not meant to destroy. So guess what happens? Those who design such power sources create them so they are designed to minimise the destruction caused if something goes wrong. Which is why Fukushima is still there, even if the impact of the shattering natural disaster that occurred just over a week ago has been pretty devastating for much of eastern Japan.

As the human race moves forward, we need to find ways in which we can generate power without using oil. To turn our backs on nuclear power based on what is, at the time of writing and with a sense of perspective on the wider situation, a non-disaster, is counter-intuitive to say the least. There will be things that can be learned from the Fukushima incident - for example, to design power stations that can withstand massive earthquakes if they are in areas where such earthquakes occur, which Fukushima was apparently not designed to withstand.

As crude, unpleasant and harsh as it may sound at this moment, when the death tallies are collated, the incident at Fukushima will pale into insignificance next to the destruction wrought by Mother Earth and its earthquake and subsequent tsunami. So to dismiss nuclear power based on a largely unprecented earthquake seems foolish at best, and to completely miss the point of this disaster at worst.

*And I say this with friends in Japan right now.

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