The horrific current events in Japan – earthquake, tsunami, explosions at two (at the time of writing) nuclear power stations, evacuation of thousands living around those power stations – must make all those of us who favour nuclear power question our support. I have spent much of the weekend doing so, but still believe that nuclear power is a necessary, low-carbon bridge-technology, until the world can be 100% reliant on renewables.
Earthquakes, and the tsunamis they cause, are genuine ‘natural disasters’. They are nothing to do with climate change. Floods, droughts and wildfires are often called natural disasters, and they have always occurred – including before the industrial revolution (and therefore before any human-induced climate change) – and it is impossible to attribute any particular event directly to climate change. Therefore, the media’s persistence with ‘natural disasters’ for such events is understandable, if somewhat incomplete as a description. However, there will always be fully natural disasters, including earthquakes and tsunamis.
Japan is in a highly seismically active area, where tectonic plates meet. Because it has no significant fossil fuel supplies, it has developed nuclear power extensively since the 1970s. In 2008, nearly a quarter of its electricity came from nuclear power. Other countries in seismically active areas, including Chile, are now considering building nuclear power stations.
Nuclear power is not risk-free and not without environmental effects, even when it goes according to plan – notably radioactive waste. The world could and should aim to phase out nuclear power. However, the unavoidable question is whether it should be phased out before or after fossil fuels. Generating electricity from coal also produces radioactive waste, as Tom Blees records in his excellent book Prescription for the Planet. Given the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the fact that the world has a long way to go before reaching 100% renewables (only 3.5% of Japan’s total energy was from renewables in 2008), nuclear power is less bad than fossil fuels.