When you’re sitting on an archipelago with more than 100 volcanoes with unique cross-section of tectonic plates underneath, the 54 odd nuclear reactors in Japan pose, not a possibility of ‘if’ but ‘when’ – when the unforseen happens.
Nucelar Power is controversial. The explosions in the 40 year old Fukushima reactor that suffered the 9M quake damage was built in the 1970’s, when Japan’s first wave of nuclear construction began. Its power back up failed due to the ensuing tsunami and has managed to spark industry’s critical eye towards viewing nuclear as the clean fuel. Tens of thousands of people forming a human chain demonstrated recently their fear, anger and opposition to the nuclear in Germany urging the state to learn from Japan – a country as high-tech as that also showed that control on nuclear power can’t be infallible at all times. The nuclear renaissance that was set to launch its wings the world over will certainly face some flak and pressure from the already opposed to nuclear power. Increased safety standards, more rigorous planning, careful checklists and increased transparency in the whole nuclear political system is the need of the hour – as the cliché goes.
Though costly to build over a long time frame, many feel that it is still a clean, safe and cheap way to supply energy with a relatively good track record – only 3 major accidents over 14,000 cumulative reactor hours of experience in 32 countries – 3 Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima – one was contained without harm to anyone, next involved intense fire without provision for containment and the third severely tested the limits of containment (World Nuclear Association). There are 3 major challenges to be overcome with nuclear power – problem of nuclear waste disposal and recycling, radiation hazard, and high cost and high capacity installation over long time frame.
Stewart Brand, a long standing proponent of nuclear power, calls it a ‘design problem’ which can be fixed. He believes that radiation that looks like a great evil in basically a design problem. Nuclear provides a clean base load electricity that produces waste just a size of a coke can as compared to a coal fired plant that belches out 16,000 tons/year of CO2 emission for the same power supply. It needs to be made safer so that each state, each province can run its own modular and thorium power plants that can be carried on trucks, that require no refueling and can be run for 60 years and then be buried in their own grave.
The risks of a nuclear blow out are also immense and can’t be negated easily. It can be dangerous, risky and the poisonous effects can last forever. Conflicting views prevail in the mainstream – in article that appeared in Time magazine 3 years ago, contends that the most vociferous activists against nuclear power, the Greenpeace is also now looking at nuclear as the only current answer to ward off global emissions on a large industrial scale. Whereas, an article by Renfrey Clarke in the International Journal for Socialist Renewal cites that Greenpeace still opposes nuclear power vehemently. Then there are strong anti-advocates like Al Gore who brought mass awareness to the world about global warming calling nuclear as dirty, expensive, unsafe and a threat to world peace.
Any which way sentiments may flow – the fact is this world is going to need energy in quantities like it has never seen before. Move from centralized grids to distributed systems is one of the ways to deliver energy – that means each town running its own power supply – even the far out remote corners that generally are not connected to the grid will be able to generate their own power from localized stations.
The Fukushima incident hasn’t done much to stall other countries agenda going for nuclear power. A recent article in International Herald Tribune goes on to explain just that – China with 11 operational reactors and 10 new ones in the making, and India with 20 current and planning to build dozens in the future, will not stop looking towards nuclear as a potentially dangerous source. They see it as a clean fuel in powering their humungous appetite for growth. Countries like Italy, Russia, Czech Republic, and Middle-Eastern countries like UAE, Jordan, Bahrain are also sticking to their nuclear energy policies. About 3/4th of France, 1/3rd of Japan and 1/5th of US is powered by nuclear power. Even Japan plans to move ahead with its 60% goal of going nuclear in the coming years.
Renewables are being seen as the long term answer – they are safe, never ending, and potentially free. But one never knows how future politics play out – you may get charged per square foot for the sunlight falling on your roof or the velocity of headwind hitting your town due to the mountain draft may well be considered illegal. Nuclear is one step up from the fossil fuels – at least you know your hazard in nuclear reactors – coal plants externalizes the emissions on the society. The world is heading to nuclear, no doubt – the question is how good can we get on our designs and transparency system that can act as transitionary technology leading into the world of sun and wind.