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Blog Posted in avatar   Michael Cosgrove's Blog

The Japan tsunami gives me more faith in nuclear power

By Michael Cosgrove
Posted Mar 25, 2011 in Environment
The anti-nuclear lobby’s case is based upon several distinct lines of argument, one of which is that renewable energy sources could replace it. Loud concerns are also being voiced about its supposed safety risk, and environmental pollution is also a worry. Well let’s see.
I too have concerns on those issues, and in particular that of nuclear safety. And although on balance I have continued to support nuclear power I would be dispensing with the truth if I didn’t say that those concerns about safety were not constantly at the back of my mind. But the recent events at the Fukushima and Daiichi nuclear plants in Japan have pushed them almost out the window.
Concerning renewable energy and its impact on the environment, there is no way that replacing all the nuclear power in the world with them is feasible at this time, and even if the theoretical models could be put into practice they show that their carbon footprint would exceed that of nuclear power if they were to produce the same amount of energy.
The amount of energy needed to keep modern society running via renewable energy would entail an enormous and highly negative environmental effect.
Wind power would be an essential part of the energy production network if nuclear was abandoned, but the problem is that if it were produced on a scale that made it a viable part of a new source combination of that scale it would necessitate a massive new network of new grid creation – power lines and stations, pylons, a guaranteed and constant delivery capacity – which would far exceed the existing grid in terms of implantation. This is because the amount of power diffused by the various installations wouldn’t be comparable in any way to the enormous quantity of energy generated by nuclear power installations, which consequently use extremely high-power delivery grids and systems, that which means we need fewer of them.
Wikimedia Commons
Solar power would run into similar problems, particularly for collecting and delivering energy produced by the massive amount of solar farms which would be needed. A non-starter.
There is wood of course, but even if England, for example, consisted of 50% forest, that wouldn’t be enough even to supply the energy necessary to fulfill the needs of, say, the steel production industry, never mind anything else.
There are other major problems with these three industries. They are all, of course, excellently adapted for use if you live in a cottage in the Dordogne, for example, but how do you get the wood to major cities and industrial areas without creating even more grid or major transport problems? And both solar and wind power are obviously not adapted to modern demands in major metropolitan areas, which need a constant and massive supply of reliable energy.
Solar power to light rural areas
Solar power to light rural areas
Finally, dams and other man-made ways of adapting rivers – even relatively small ones – to provide energy have destroyed a lot of countryside and killed many species over the years.
Coal could do the job though, or at least much of it, albeit for a limited period of time, but it is, of course, the most dangerous of all energy sources. It has killed and maimed more human beings than nuclear could in hundreds of years given today’s accident rate, and its polluting qualities are 100 times worse than that of nuclear power, even in terms of radioactivity released.
But the safety record of nuclear power is excellent. The radiation damage to humans at Three Mile Island proved to be negligible, with those within a ten-mile radius who were the most exposed receiving no more than a couple of chest X-rays’ worth and the general level in the air being just a third of what is in the air naturally. Chernobyl was not caused by nuclear power but by crass negligence, a lot of which, moreover, couldn’t happen in modern plants because of the many improvements in dummy-proof systems which have been introduced after learning the lessons of that event.
I already held these opinions before the tsunami hit, so why do I have even more faith in nuclear power today than I did a few weeks ago?
Because of what happened – or rather didn’t happen – at the Fukushima and Daiichi nuclear plants after the earthquake, tsunami and flooding in Japan. They were built many years ago with outdated technology compared to that contained within the latest plants being built (notably by the French) and yet they just survived one of the most devastating natural disasters ever recorded in Japan.
The damage was enormous but even so few if any people have been seriously irradiated – even among those living around, and working within, the plants – and the amount of radiation to be found outside of a 50-mile perimeter of them in Japan has posed no threat to the health of the Japanese people, never mind to the worrying billions around the world, driven as they were by media exaggerations of the possible outcome to clean out their country’s stocks of Geiger counters and Iodine pills in days.
The Japanese authorities seem to have handled this responsibly on the other hand, and events have proved that they were right to insist that there was no need for the Japanese to panic.
The nuclear industry has just survived the most massive natural challenge it has ever had to face and it has come out of it relatively unscathed. There are of course issues of corrupt practices and safety procedures to be examined urgently, but the global picture is a positive one.