For all the high-mindedness of the thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets in the past week opposing nuclear energy following nearly catastrophic mishaps at a nuclear power plant in Japan, their argument has tapped more into irrational fears than instructive debate on future global energy needs.
Despite the serious threat posed by leaks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan following a powerful earthquake and tsunami on March 11, the fact remains that when we take into account the magnitude of the natural catastrophe that led to the malfunctions at the plant in the first place, Japan’s nuclear industry on that “Black Friday” showed incredible resilience.
The same can be said if we look at the history of nuclear power on a global scale. Given that commercial nuclear energy has been around for more than half a century, the fact that only three names have been burned into our collective psyche — Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima Dai-ichi — as a result of serious failure is more evocative of an energy source that is safe than something that should be opposed at all costs — unless you’re from the oil cabal, which since 1973 has spent considerable energy and money seeking to “take the bloom off the nuclear rose.”
In fact, other sources of energy that have become so enmeshed into our ordinary lives, but whose destructiveness is far greater, such as coal and oil, have failed to capture the imagination of protesters. From high pollutant condensates blanketing the skies across China to numerous spills from the Exxon Valdez to BP, coal and oil have killed many more people over the years and their extraction has been far more damaging to the environment (just ask Nigerians or Brazilians) than has peaceful nuclear power. Not to mention the political implications of our intoxication with oil, which has led to countless wars and often encouraged the West to prop up despots, such as in Equatorial Guinea, or China to shield genocidal regimes such as Sudan’s from international action.
Agents that we cannot see or smell, but which can potentially kill us is the stuff of Hollywood. Like epidemics and chemical weapons, nuclear power — or its phantasmal offshoot, radioactivity — evokes fears that transcend the rational, drawing from memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to science fiction classics like The Andromeda Strain.
Some parents attending a demonstration against nuclear power in Taipei at the weekend said they decided to bring their young ones along because the issue concerned their children’s future. Indeed it does, but so do oil and coal, and to a far greater extent.
Good intentions notwithstanding, that collective energy would be better spent not so much targeting nuclear energy per se, but rather safety laxness at nuclear power plants and planet-wide foot-dragging in the search for alternative energy that can truly meet rising global demand in a way that is safe, efficient and environmentally friendly.
The fact of the matter is nuclear energy remains the only feasible solution to global energy shortages — solar power remains in its infancy and will be largely insufficient until scientists develop the means to gather it and store it efficiently. Absent investment in research and development on the scale seen in the oil industry, where billions of dollars are spent annually seeking increasingly scarce and inaccessible oil sources, solar power and other “green” industries will remain something noble, but certainly not the solution.