Remembering Fukushima

Remembering Fukushima

Mar

09
2012

Andrew Horvath
The Big Picture

This weekend marks the one year anniversary (11 March) since the Japanese coast was struck by a massive tsunami, and while widespread devastation resulted across a vast area; for most of the world, it’s summed up in one word: Fukushima.

The chance combination of events – massive underwater earthquake, huge tsunami, nuclear power plant – is something we’ll probably never see again.

The international response was shock and widespread fear of the unknown, quickly escalated by deliberately alarming global media coverage.

The German response, made under the banner of ‘environmentalism’, is one its Government, and the citizens who will be affected by higher energy costs to further subsidise gas and renewables, will come to regret.

Switzerland is phasing out nuclear power and Italy vowed to abandon plans to reintroduce it.

The Japanese disaster was the tsunami. Not Fukushima. It was the 24,000 people killed and thousands left homeless. It was not the loss of power to back up generators which stopped reactors from cooling.

The Fukushima nuclear accident was an extremely serious mistake from which the industry has learned – and will continue to learn – plenty. It has caused major anxiety and disruption to the lives of the many thousands who are not yet able to return to (what’s left of) their homes as a precautionary measure against radiation contamination.

While the post-Fukushima headlines were largely dominated by those looking to demonise nuclear technology; shining a spotlight on the nuclear sector has provided opportunities to re-open the debate about the virtues and potential of the numerous different forms of nuclear energy.

Fukushima has provided a platform to educate the world about nuclear energy and to remind those who panic at the very mention of the world nuclear that all forms of nuclear energy are not created equal. The safety risks for each are not the same. The problems are not universal.

The major problem at Fukushima was when the tsunami took out the back-up generators which supply power to circulate coolant to remove residual heat. The reactors themselves did exactly what they were designed to do in the event of a sudden disaster. Shut down.

The types of nuclear power plants now being built and approved around the world have passive systems which will allow cooling to take place even without power. Essentially, this scenario won’t be possible with new generation nuclear power. Obviously, in the meantime, ensuring it won’t happen in a worse-case scenario situation with existing nuclear power plants is the established nuclear power industry’s number one priority.

There are many who remain firmly committed to nuclear fission power as the best fossil fuel alternative currently available, citing its clean credentials, reliability and cheap running costs.

There are a growing number who understand nuclear fusion is the only sustainable energy source capable of powering our hi-tech lifestyles for generations to come – without emitting any greenhouse gases.

Nuclear fusion has none of fission’s downside.  Small as the risks from nuclear power plants are, they’re still there. And nobody is going to forget them no matter what kind of PR offensive the nuclear fission industry mounts. That’s why Star Scientific Limited has been committed to perfecting muon catalysed fusion for more than a decade.

Carbon dioxide kills people in the developing world every day as a result of indoor air pollution from biomass and coal but it doesn’t make the headlines like radiation does. Reports estimate the number of deaths attributable to air pollution from coal at around 100,000 a year. Now consider nuclear incidents in context.

Nuclear fission isn’t my first choice as an energy source but it certainly has many advantages over fossil fuels and many renewable energy sources. Until nuclear fusion is commercialised, if we want to reduce carbon emissions and take a serious, practical approach to the climate change situation we have to use nuclear fission. We have to stop sensationalising the “N” word.

If we seek energy independence, if we want to be environmentally responsible, we can’t rule out nuclear power. We can’t realistically even scale it back.

Until the day when nuclear fusion revolutionises the energy sector, we need to consider nuclear fission. In light of the world’s rapidly growing population, the huge energy appetite of large emerging economies and the fact that our carbon emissions simply cannot continue their current trajectory without threatening our planet in ways we can barely imagine; we reject it at our peril.