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Japan nuclear crisis should not carry weight in atomic energy debate

Nuclear power plant – China

George Monbiot argues that the nuclear crisis in Japan should not scare governments away from seriously considering nuclear power, as nuclear power remains safer than coal. Already, China has suspended approval of new nuclear power plants.

What’s your opinion on this position?

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Japan nuclear crisis should not carry weight in atomic energy debate” was written by George Monbiot, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 16th March 2011 17.11 UTC

The nuclear disaster unfolding in Japan is bad enough; the nuclear disaster unfolding in China could be even worse.

“What disaster?”, you may ask. The decision taken today by the Chinese government to suspend approval of new atomic power plants. If this suspension were to become permanent, the power those plants would have produced is likely to be replaced by burning coal. While nuclear causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right, and coal goes right a lot more often than nuclear goes wrong. The only safe coal-fired plant is one which has broken down past the point of repair.

Before I go any further, and I’m misinterpreted for the thousandth time, let me spell out once again what my position is. I have not gone nuclear. But, as long as the following four conditions are met, I will no longer oppose atomic energy.

1. Its total emissions – from mine to dump – are taken into account, and demonstrate that it is a genuinely low-carbon option

2. We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried

3. We know how much this will cost and who will pay

4. There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes

To these I’ll belatedly add a fifth, which should have been there all along: no plants should be built in fault zones, on tsunami-prone coasts, on eroding seashores or those likely to be inundated before the plant has been decommissioned or any other places which are geologically unsafe. This should have been so obvious that it didn’t need spelling out. But we discover, yet again, that the blindingly obvious is no guarantee that a policy won’t be adopted.

I despise and fear the nuclear industry as much as any other green: all experience hath shown that, in most countries, the companies running it are a corner-cutting bunch of scumbags, whose business originated as a by-product of nuclear weapons manufacture. But, sound as the roots of the anti-nuclear movement are, we cannot allow historical sentiment to shield us from the bigger picture. Even when nuclear power plants go horribly wrong, they do less damage to the planet and its people than coal-burning stations operating normally.

Coal, the most carbon-dense of fossil fuels, is the primary driver of human-caused climate change. If its combustion is not curtailed, it could kill millions of times more people than nuclear power plants have done so far. Yes, I really do mean millions. The Chernobyl meltdown was hideous and traumatic. The official death toll so far appears to be 43 – 28 workers in the initial few months then a further 15 civilians by 2005. Totally unacceptable, of course; but a tiny fraction of the deaths for which climate change is likely to be responsible, through its damage to the food supply, its contribution to the spread of infectious diseases and its degradation of the quality of life for many of the world’s poorest people.

Coal also causes plenty of other environmental damage, far worse than the side effects of nuclear power production: from mountaintop removal to acid rain and heavy metal pollution. An article in Scientific American points out that the fly ash produced by a coal-burning power plant “carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy”.

Of course it’s not a straight fight between coal and nuclear. There are plenty of other ways of producing electricity, and I continue to place appropriate renewables above nuclear power in my list of priorities. We must also make all possible efforts to reduce consumption. But we’ll still need to generate electricity, and not all renewable sources are appropriate everywhere. While producing solar power makes perfect sense in north Africa, in the UK, by comparison to both wind and nuclear, it’s a waste of money and resources. Abandoning nuclear power as an option narrows our choices just when we need to be thinking as broadly as possible.

Several writers for the Guardian have made what I believe is an unjustifiable leap. A disaster has occurred in a plant that was appallingly sited in an earthquake zone; therefore, they argue, all nuclear power programmes should be abandoned everywhere. It looks to me as if they are jumping on this disaster as support for a pre-existing position they hold for other reasons. Were we to follow their advice, we would rule out a low-carbon source of energy, which could help us tackle the gravest threat the world now faces. That does neither the people nor the places of the world any favours.


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://twitter.com/JessTasking Jess Tasking

    Totally concur with your 5 criteria. Would add that the French leading the world in this area are now able to reprocess 95% spent fuel to reduce nucelar waste considerably. Reactor design is also improving considerably with technology. There are ways to split an atom safely.
    The media will dictate the willingness of Australians to discuss nuclear energy at this time, and while Fukishima is regrettable, the clarity of the argument must not be lost.

  • Steve

    totally agree. The reprocessing is successful. I am as green as they come and having researched the 4 main power sources. Nuclear for the immediate future is the best option till people can learn to use less power.

  • Evan

    This position is remarkable nonsense. What does risk mean? Is annihilation of a section of our planet really on a scale of risk with me stubbing my toe? I think NOT.

    Governments paranoid about terrorists have never ONCE addressed the problem of a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant. What will we do with the waste? Burying = shutting our eyes. This doesn’t qualify as a solution in any meaningful sense of the term.

    We can move to renewables easily and quickly. Will it cost? OF COURSE. So does nuclear. And in less time too. And it doesn’t mean using up resources (delaying confronting the problem – it really is just intellectual laziness or moral cowardice or both).

    Those dangerous pinko lefties in the global insurance companies don’t seem keen to take on the risk. Should we? I don’t think so.

    As was pointed out decades ago: A 100sq m solar array in the middle of Australia could supply the world’s power needs. With existing technology!

  • Gigi5678

    Evan your a brit dreamer my friend, wake up, as long as the towel heads are in control of the oil ill opt for a few hundred square miles of radioactive contamination any day. Look how much pollution, death, famine and human suffering these arab animals have caused. I say lets nuke Iran, saudi arabia and Iraq and drill through the black glass for the oil. Elect Donald Trump for President.

  • http://www.the9billion.com jjprojects

    You obviously feel strongly about it, but there’s no need for racist remarks thanks. I’ll assume you are joking about wanting to nuke those countries. Bad Joke. I doubt Donald Trump would be keen to do that either.

  • Djmer

    There’s a lot of issues but the only realistic approach t meet our future energy needs would seem to be hanging onto coal as we bur it clearner using pre, post, or oxyfuel combustion to bridge the gap while renewables come online.

    As for nuclear, it’s more expensive and there’s a dwindling supply of uranium even at current usage levels so any substantial increase in nuclear is purely hypothetical, not realistic. What do we move to AFTER uranium runs out is a better question.

    The coal and gas will last a LOT longer than uranium supplies.

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