What Fukushima should mean to us

by on Friday, 01 July 2011 Comments

The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami brought vast destruction to Japan. Captured on shaky camera-phone footage, images of the event, of the monumental floods sweeping away everyone and everything, are now burned forever in our collective consciousness. A nation at once underwater and ablaze. 125,000 buildings destroyed. Over 15000 people confirmed dead, over 8000 people still missing. It’s impossible to wrap your head around numbers as disturbing as these.

But what truly gripped the world in fear, what hit close to home even thousands of miles away, far from any fault lines, far from any shorelines, what shook everyone’s confidence to its core was the drama that unfolded before our eyes in the weeks that followed.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster changed forever the world’s relationship with nuclear energy. Over the course of several weeks, we looked on in abject horror as our worst fears played out. First one explosion; then another; then another. Uncontrollable fires. Hero workers trudging deep into the plant, donning awkward, heavy-duty, white and blue radiation suits, risking everything for the safety of a nation. Everywhere, tests revealing unsafe levels of contamination – vegetables, fish, milk, the very land itself. Evacuations ordered. Hourly bulletins about the safety of Tokyo’s tap water. Elevated radiation levels being detected as far away as the United States and Canada.

For many, Fukushima gave the most damning evidence yet that nuclear energy should no longer be considered an option. Now, environmentalists all over the world are cheering Germany’s decision to decommission all of its nuclear power plants by the year 2022. Switzerland now promises to follow Germany’s lead by 2034. Similar movements in other countries are gaining steam. The fear of nuclear energy is palpable these days and many would like to ride it for all it is worth.

Yes, it certainly is a lonely time for those in favor of nuclear energy. But I have to count myself as one amongst the few.

This isn’t an article about whether or not nuclear energy is safe. Quite frankly, nuclear energy isn’t safe, and it is my sincere hope that the disaster in Japan will give us a wake-up call to its dangers. But I don’t believe what happened there necessitates a worldwide moratorium on nuclear energy. In light of the world’s ever-growing appetite for energy, we need a careful, critical discussion of what our best options are moving forward from Fukushima. Crisis calls for measured action, not ham-fisted resolutions.

The future of our world depends on our choices, and only by asking the right questions can we make the right choices. Fukushima reminds us that the use of nuclear energy comes with a significant risk. So, the first question is: Should we give up nuclear energy because it isn’t safe? More specifically, without nuclear power, what are we left with? What will we do? Will we really begin to power the world with windmills and solar panels?

No, we will burn more coal; that’s what we will do.

This is because our appetite for energy now far outweighs our ability to generate it from clean sources. If you think it will play out any other way, please consider Germany. After the decision was made to shut down nuclear power, Germany’s politicians insisted that the nation would be going green from here on out, and their tough stance on nuclear energy won the praise of many. To quote Chancellor Angela Merkel: “We believe we as a country can be a trailblazer for a new age of renewable energy sources."

It sounds nice, it really does. But statements such as these do not paint a complete picture. The Breakthrough Institute think tank believes Germany will have to scale up its renewable energies to generate over 40% of the country’s energy in order to make up for the loss of nuclear energy – no easy task. Germany, for its part, obviously doesn’t think replacing nuclear with renewables is economically feasible. I say this because rather than pouring money and resources into renewables, Germany is pouring them into the construction of fossil fuel plants.

"If we want to quickly get out of nuclear power and into renewable energy, we need fossil-fuel power plants. There is no way around," says the Chancellor.

Philip Roesler, Germany’s economy minister, adds: "I think it is a very clever idea to build fossil-fuel plants on existing [nuclear] sites.”

For many, this is still good news. When people think of coal, apocalyptic visions of nuclear winters, radiation suits and mutated fish do not bubble up to the surface. Coal, despite its obvious setbacks, seems a safer choice than nuclear power in the popular mind. But this is precisely the notion I hope to challenge.

The second question is: If our choice in the short-term boils down to coal or nuclear, then which is better?

Much of the talk about nuclear energy is concerning what could happen. Few people are paying attention to what is happening, every day, because of coal burning. It is difficult to estimate how many people coal burning kills each year, but a good place to start looking is deaths caused by coal mining. In the United States, coal mining kills approximately 30 people per year. A staggering figure, to be sure. But in less developed nations, the number of deaths is much, much higher. In 2004, over 6000 coal miners lost their lives in China. To put this in context, only one man died at Fukushima, and he didn’t die of radiation sickness. He died of a heart-attack.

Many, of course, will point out that the danger from nuclear plants is far more insidious. Radiation takes time to kill, after all. This is absolutely true. But because it’s something we can see in the air, smell on the wind, and feel in our bodies, because we deal with it every day, because it simply doesn’t evoke the same gut-wrenching fear that radiation does, pollution from coal-burning does not get the press it deserves.

Most of us know about the dangers of global warming, and that coal burning is a huge component of it. In China, for instance, coal accounts for over 80% of CO2 emissions. In America, that figure is 40%. But few of us recognize the more tangible effects of coal burning on society. According to an estimate by University of Pittsburgh Physics Professor Bernard Cohen, a typical coal plant will lead to 25 premature deaths every year, in addition to some 60,000 respiratory illnesses. A 2006 study estimated that coal-burning shortens the lives of 400,000 people per year in China. A 2010 report by the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit environmental group, found that pollution from coal-fired power plants will result in the early deaths of more than 13,000 Americans in 2011. An American Lung Association study showed that pollution from coal-burning prematurely kills 24,000 Americans every year, in addition to causing 38,000 heart attacks, 12,000 hospital admissions and 550,000 asthma attacks.

Different agencies will come up with different figures, but in every study the numbers are shocking. They tell us that air pollution, too, takes time to kill, and that it is killing many, many people. This is happening, today, right now, this very moment. Even worse, the cumulative effects of air pollution will be felt for many, many generations. In this way it is similar to radioactive fall-out – only it is not localized to a particular area.

Speaking of radiation, it may surprise you to know that coal burning releases a significant amount of it into our environment. This is because fossil fuel contains radioactive isotopes. The amount of radiation released from the burning of coal is not a trivial amount. A study found that in 1982, a typical American coal burning plant released 4.7 tonnes of uranium and 11.6 tonnes of thorium, for a total national release of 727 tonnes of uranium and 1788 tonnes of thorium. The total release of radioactivity from coal-fired fossil fuel in America was 97.3 TBq that year. This is 155 times greater than the total amount of radioactive material released by the Three Mile Island accident.

Still, the dangers of this huge quantity of additional radiation pale in comparison to the dangers of coal’s carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen oxide emissions. This is because the levels at which radiation is thought to cause serious health consequences are higher than you might think. For instance, it is generally believed that the Fukushima disaster, despite all the press it has generated, has so far caused no deaths or long term health effects due to radiation exposure. I want to say that again, because it may sound unbelievable in light of everything you have heard: there have so far been no deaths or long term health effects attributable to radiation from the Fukushima disaster.

How can this be? When it comes to radiation, numbers are deceiving. For instance, it can be said that the average Fukushima resident was exposed to 3600 times the normal level of background radiation people absorb in a day. It’s a mind-boggling figure.

But in order for such figures to have any real meaning, they need to be further contextualized. The annual dose at which an increase in the lifetime risk of cancer is evident is 100 millisieverts (mSv). A mammogram gives you 3 mSv. A CT scan gives you approximately 10mSv. The maximum yearly dose for United States radiation workers is 50mSv/year. Most experts believe that the average Fukushima resident was probably exposed to, at most, 30-40 mSv of radiation – the equivalent of smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day for a year.

The dangers of radiation are, nonetheless, very real. The Fukushima disaster is just that: a disaster. Many people were forced to evacuate, and it will be many years before the land surrounding the plant is safe to live on. Questions of food safety continue to pop up.  And, despite all the comforting figures governments give about what constitutes a ‘safe’ dose, it would behoove us all to remain skeptical. There will no doubt be many studies into the long-term effects of the Fukushima disaster, and it is very possible we will discover that the long-term risks of low-doses of radiation are greater than we now suppose. But, this seems a fact of modern life: many things that enable the lifestyles we enjoy are not very good for us. Nuclear power is one of many.

Ultimately it comes down to this: Nuclear power is bad. But coal burning is worse. Therefore, wherever possible, we should seriously consider ridding ourselves of coal before nuclear.

What happened in Japan should force us to re-examine the relative risks and safety protocols at each and every nuclear power plant in the world. The incident exposed some serious concerns about the nature of the relationship between the nuclear industry and the regulatory committee that oversees it.  Adjustments should be made, and some nuclear plants should probably be taken offline. But I believe these decisions should be taken on a case by case basis.

Still, there are those who argue that we cannot let the opportunity to end nuclear power now pass us by, that we must strike while the iron is hot. Their reasoning is as follows: Right now, the coal lobby remains as strong as ever, so taking it down would prove next to impossible. Nuclear energy, however, is reeling from the blow Fukushima dealt to its reputation as a safe energy source. Therefore, it follows that, like wolves chasing prey bigger than ourselves, we should pick off the weak and injured while we can and save the tougher battles for a time when we are better armed – with legitimate green energy alternatives. It pains me to admit it, but this might be true. It is all the more crucial, then, for us not to let Germany forget its promise to invest heavily in green energy. The whole world is watching this experiment; something good needs to come of it. The future energy policies of many nations hang in the balance.

But I won’t stand in line to pat Germany on the back. I remain skeptical of the true motivation behind its government’s decision, which seems the result of playing politics rather than any real concern for its people. And I also remain skeptical of the idea that informed, concerned citizens are incapable of making coal a target of their ire. If coal fails to terrify, if we have not yet imbued it with that same sense of epic horror shadowing every thought of nuclear power, it is only because of our collective ignorance of its very real, daily dangers.

The bottom line is that nuclear power and green energy investments should not be considered mutually exclusive. So for as long as coal is our only real alternative to nuclear power, I will remain a proponent of nuclear power. I may be a lonely idealist, but I think we can go after the bigger, stronger, more dangerous prey first.

(Painting by Bendu)

Taylor Briere (白曄)

Freelance writer living in Taipei, Taylor is also a musician and a composer in his spare time.

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