The lesson of Fukushima
The first anniversary of Japanâ€™s nuclear disaster is a good time to take stock. Opponents and proponents of nuclear power are doing so, and they have come to the same conclusion: â€śWe were right all along.â€ť
The meltdown at the Fukushima power plant is certainly grist for the mill of the anti-nuclear crowd. It forced the evacuation of 300,000 people and will cost as much as $250 billion to clean up, according to the Japan Center for Economic Research. If a natural disaster can trigger such a dangerous, disruptive and expensive crisis in a country as advanced as Japan, then itâ€™s impossible to guarantee safety anywhere. Efforts to do the impossible will make nuclear power even more expensive and, by some analyses including that of the Worldwatch Institute, it already costs more than solar energy.
The technical and economic data, though, may offer less support for the anti-nuclear brigade than the images from Fukushima, including explosions, mass evacuations to escape the deadly and invisible threat of radiation, and workers in white safety suits. The pictures reinforce the visceral fear that radioactivity is just too hot to handle.
Proponents of nuclear plants havenâ€™t exactly been comforted by Fukushima, but they argue that a cool look at the situation actually supports their case. After all, the damage from a near worst-case scenario at a badly managed, ageing plant is proving to be quite bearable. This case is strengthened by the Japanese governmentâ€™s minimum estimate of direct clean up costs â€“ something like $15 billion, spread out over several years. Thatâ€™s less than 10 percent of the highest estimates of damage, and of the expected non-nuclear cost of the earthquake and tsunami which overwhelmed the Fukushima plant.
Besides, the pro-nukes say, the affected plant was too old to be relevant for future investment decisions. New plants are safer by design. Fukushima wonâ€™t significantly alter the result of the studies promoted by the World Nuclear Association, which conclude that atomic energy is relatively cheap. Enthusiasts, who have always dismissed atomic phobia as illogical and exaggerated, are quick to point out that Fukushima has nothing to do with Hiroshima. The chain of activities required to generate, say, coal-fired power can be shown to cost more lives, too.
What Fukushima really teaches is that the gap between the two sides of the nuclear argument is too wide to be bridged by evidence. Whatever happens, many opponents will always see an intrinsically dangerous technology which people should not try to tame. And however expensive the last plant or accident, most proponents will continue to believe that nuclear power is a wonderful technology, needed for humanityâ€™s long-term comfort, and with risks that can be managed.
I think the factual arguments hide a deeply philosophical disagreementâ€“ about just how much control man can and should have over the hidden forces of nature. The same fundamental discord embitters arguments about global warming, biotechnology, assisted reproductive technology and the population the earth can durably sustain. In such heartfelt debates, facts and pseudo-facts are sought largely as weapons to be thrown at the other side. Fukushima seems to provide a fair supply.
The philosophical issue is important. There are surely technologies which really do cross a fairly clear moral line, and the natural world should not be exploited blindly. But nuclear power is no longer an appropriate field for this ideological combat.
That was not always the case. In the 1950s, the destructive power of atomic fission was clear, while the human ability to make it beneficial was not. After more than a half-century of operating nuclear plants with only a few accidents â€“ none of them killing as many people as the 1984 explosion at the Bhopal chemical factory in India â€“ itâ€™s no longer appropriate to consider this technology as beyond the moral pale.
On the other hand, nuclear costs have consistently failed to plummet as predicted for the past 50-plus years. So the technology cannot be considered a potential wonder-cure for energy woes. It is never going to live up to a U.S. promoterâ€™s 1954 dream that it would be â€śtoo cheap to meterâ€ť.
How does nuclear power look once it is freed from the weight of ideology and dreams? Neither clearly better nor clearly worse than gas, coal or solar. Itâ€™s certainly competitive, thanks largely to low operating costs â€“ uranium is much cheaper than coal or oil â€“ but comparisons that consider all types of associated expenses are inevitably highly subjective. The problem is ignorance of the future.
Nuclear plants last four to six decades, far too long for accurate predictions of fuel prices and technological developments. They are a diversifier away from coal, oil and gas generation. But thereâ€™s no way to foresee, let alone calculate with anything like precision, whether nuclear power will prove more or less expensive, safe, clean or reliable than its rivals.
In the face of this uncertainty, a reasonable policy choice is to temporise. The Chinese, who have made a serious commitment to nuclear power and several other technologies, paused to learn the lessons of Fukushima, and now look set to go on as before. That sounds about right.
Edward Hadas is a Reuters columnist.