A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
Some greens have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution.
Fukushima I-4’s spent fuel alone, while in the reactor, had produced (over years, not in an instant) more than a hundred times more fission energy and hence radioactivity than both 1945 atomic bombs. If that already-damaged fuel keeps overheating, it may melt or burn, releasing into the air things like cesium-137 and strontium-90, which take several centuries to decay a millionfold. Unit 3’s fuel is spiked with plutonium, which takes 482,000 years.
Pure, pure crap and misdirection.
More from Monbiot
Like others, I have called for renewable power to be used both to replace the electricity produced by fossil fuel and to expand the total supply, displacing the oil used for transport and the gas used for heating fuel. Are we also to demand that it replaces current nuclear capacity? The more work we expect renewables to do, the greater the impact on the landscape will be, and the tougher the task of public persuasion.
But expanding the grid to connect people and industry to rich, distant sources of ambient energy is also rejected by most of the greens who complained about the blog post I wrote last week in which I argued that nuclear remains safer than coal. What they want, they tell me, is something quite different: we should power down and produce our energy locally. Some have even called for the abandonment of the grid. Their bucolic vision sounds lovely, until you read the small print.
At high latitudes like ours, most small-scale ambient power production is a dead loss. Generating solar power in the UK involves a spectacular waste of scarce resources. It’s hopelessly inefficient and poorly matched to the pattern of demand. Wind power in populated areas is largely worthless. This is partly because we have built our settlements in sheltered places; partly because turbulence caused by the buildings interferes with the airflow and chews up the mechanism. Micro-hydropower might work for a farmhouse in Wales, but it’s not much use in Birmingham.
And how do we drive our textile mills, brick kilns, blast furnaces and electric railways – not to mention advanced industrial processes? Rooftop solar panels? The moment you consider the demands of the whole economy is the moment at which you fall out of love with local energy production. A national (or, better still, international) grid is the essential prerequisite for a largely renewable energy supply.
Some greens go even further: why waste renewable resources by turning them into electricity? Why not use them to provide energy directly? To answer this question, look at what happened in Britain before the industrial revolution.
The damming and weiring of British rivers for watermills was small-scale, renewable, picturesque and devastating. By blocking the rivers and silting up the spawning beds, they helped bring to an end the gigantic runs of migratory fish that were once among our great natural spectacles and which fed much of Britain – wiping out sturgeon, lampreys and shad, as well as most sea trout and salmon.
Traction was intimately linked with starvation. The more land that was set aside for feeding draft animals for industry and transport, the less was available for feeding humans. It was the 17th-century equivalent of today’s biofuels crisis.
But the energy source to which most economies will revert if they shut down their nuclear plants is not wood, water, wind or sun, but fossil fuel. On every measure (climate change, mining impact, local pollution, industrial injury and death, even radioactive discharges) coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power. Thanks to the expansion of shale gas production, the impacts of natural gas are catching up fast.
The emergency has prompted a rethink of nuclear programmes in other countries is understandable, and the instinctive response of many will now be to condemn nuclear power out of hand.
But to do so would be to miss one of the clearest lessons of Fukushima. It is an old plant: the reactors there are 1960s designs. And that should remind us that it would be unwise to extend the lifespans of vintage plants in order to postpone politically tricky choices about whether to build new, safer ones.
It is also important to remember that Fukushima is not typical of reactor sites around the world. It was shaken by a megaquake that was exceptional even for Japan. In less seismically active regions nuclear plants will not face the same design challenges.
Though the crisis at Fukushima is not over, it is almost certain that the loss of life and destruction caused directly by the earthquake and tsunami will dwarf any harm from the damaged reactors. Advocates of nuclear power might even argue that the ad hoc efforts to avert catastrophe should be considered a success, given that the quake was far more severe than any that these reactors were designed to withstand.
Yet wherever we set the safety bar, we have to accept that there are forces of nature that lie beyond our control, and which can humble even a wealthy, technologically advanced economy with some of the most sophisticated emergency planning anywhere. Natural disasters can unleash more destructive power than any likely nuclear accidents. Over the decades we have probably seen the worst that can happen. The fallout from Chernobyl and the rest is not a pretty sight, but it pales into insignificance compared with the devastation earthquakes and hurricanes inflict.
That’s something worth bearing in mind as we face the fact that rising global temperatures will amplify nature’s ability to cause havoc. We should be nervous at the thought of what may lie in store in decades to come.