Recent events in Japan have brought into stark light the potential dangers of nuclear energy. Amid increasing fears of a nuclear meltdown as a result of this environmental disaster, the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that has devastated Japan and affected the lives of so many could be felt in generations to come.
The earthquake and resultant tsunami – one of the most devastating natural disasters to occur in many years – has brought increasing scrutiny upon the resilience and safety of nuclear power plants around the world. The past weeks have seen the world focusing on the Fukushima power plant, which sustained much damage during the quake, necessitating around-the-clock efforts to bring the reactors under control and the cooling system back on line.
As a result of this tragic wake up call, reports of other plants that have been built on or near fault lines are increasing – a case in point is the San Onofre plant in California, situated just 5km from an earthquake fault like and with a history of management problems and safety violations. Similar scrutiny has been placed upon the Koeberg reactor in Cape Town, South Africa, which has been built to endure an earthquake to the magnitude of 7.0 and no more.
A recent article In the Huffington Post noted that: “According to a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, in 2010 alone, mechanical, electrical and human errors caused "near-misses" at reactors in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. That list only includes events that caused plants to shut down, not "routine" safety concerns...”
Although there have been only 3 major accidents related to nuclear plants – the most destructive being that of Chernobyl - questions are being posed as to whether the effects of climate change and the resultant changes in weather patterns bodes ill for the future of nuclear energy. The earth is clearly in need of renewable, clean energy. However, this energy needs to be safe.
25 years after the disaster at Chernobyl, studies show that not only are those in the area at an increased risk for cancer, birth defects, genetic mutations and other illnesses, but that much of the land and water is still contaminated, and 97% of the radioactive material is still on site – located in what was meant to be an interim measure ‘sarcophagus’. Over 2000 towns and villages were bulldozed to the ground, displacing communities and eradicating livelihoods.
In view of this, it is natural to wonder why nuclear power with its potential pitfalls is still being pursued as a viable strategy across the world. As noted by David Kroodsma, a climate central data journalist, “before Fukushima, there were 443 functioning nuclear power plants in the world. About 62 were under construction, and another 324 were in various stages of planning”. 75% of the world’s nuclear energy output is concentrated in just 8 countries.
The benefit of an energy source without greenhouse gas emissions is beguiling, and the 13% -16% of global electricity that comes from nuclear power saves an estimated 2.5 billion tons of CO2 emissions a year.
However, nuclear power remains non-renewable – relying on extracting and refining heavy metals that are radioactive, and leaving us with the problem of how to dispose of or store these materials over generations. We are clearly in need of clean energy, but it seems that nuclear energy may come at a cost that we cannot afford. Luckily, there is another option.
The rise of renewable energy in the past decade has been phenomenal, and is set to keep increasing. According to the Institute of Science and Society; “At the end of 2009, fully one quarter of global power capacity (1230 GW) is renewable, delivering 18 percent of global electricity supply. This is more than three times the global nuclear generating capacity and about 38 percent the capacity of fossil fuel-burning power plants worldwide”.
The developments in Japan have already begun to affect energy strategies for other countries – with China (the world’s biggest energy consumer) recently announcing its intention to cut its 2020 nuclear goal, and instead increase its utilisation of solar power. It is hoped that other countries will follow this example.
Solar, wind and hydroelectric power are less capital intensive and easier to install and maintain than their nuclear and carbon-based counterparts. Most importantly, they are infinitely safer, both for the planet and for all those who populate it. For more information: