A natural, not nuclear, disaster

Map of JapanI had felt it inappropriate to write a piece in support of nuclear power, which seems such a trivial matter when thousands of people have lost their lives in the earthquake and ensuing tsunami. However, it seems anti-nuclear groups in the UK and Germany, and no doubt other areas, are attempting to capitalise on the disaster to further their own campaigns. I find this rather distasteful, but now feel someone has to write something in defence of nuclear power.

As with every country using nuclear power (except, infamously, the Soviet Union) Japan has used nuclear reactors for decades without major incident. The current situation was ultimately caused not by a fault with the plant itself or a lapse of safety procedures, but by an earthquake. The earthquake caused a tsunami that, it is now estimated, has killed at least 10,000 people in coastal areas. The earthquake itself will have killed hundreds of people, who were trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings. The earthquake has also caused the nuclear alert, but that has so far killed no-one at all. Of course, the situation may worsen, but the number of casualties will be dwarfed by the other deaths caused by this natural disaster.

Now I’m sure people will say nevertheless that even if they are smaller in number, any deaths or serious illness caused by radiation wouldn’t have occurred had the nuclear power stations not been there. This is true, but if we are to avoid building nuclear plants in case they are damaged by an earthquake, surely we should apply the same logic and avoid building any cities anywhere on the coast of Japan, or countries with similar seismic activity, in case there is a tsunami – after all, far more people were killed by the tsunami. Perhaps we should also avoid living in buildings in case an earthquake reduces them to rubble, and all live in tents instead.

The fact is, people want to live in coastal areas, they don’t want to live in tents, and they want to use electricity. People are prepared to take risks, and using nuclear power is by far the least risky of those three activities.

So why is there so much coverage of the situation at the nuclear plant, seeming eclipsing other coverage of the aftermath of the disaster in some media outlets? I believe the reason is that the press like a current story so they can justify the existence of rolling news coverage. Following the latest events as workers attempt to shut down a nuclear power station sells newspapers in a way that covering the hardship of people after an event has already happened doesn’t. There is also the fact that the public are so poorly informed about nuclear power, and consider it some sort of frightening black magic. Nuclear reactors contain radiation, and radiation is bad, after all. That’s all they need to know. Newspapers get their sensational headlines, and everyone’s happy.

Neither the UK nor Germany experiences earthquakes of anything like the magnitude experienced in Japan. There is no risk of a similar disaster occurring in either country. In fact, the earthquake proves how good the construction and engineering of nuclear power stations is, as the reactor cores and the buildings they were housed in withstood the actual tremors.

Anti-nuclear campaigners should stop trying to take advantage of the plight of the Japanese people, using a natural disaster as an excuse to oppose something, when just about any man-made activity is just as dangerous in the face of an earthquake. Unfortunately, I think the fact that the nuclear power stations are no longer producing electricity, and the resulting power cuts, are going to affect ordinary Japanese people much more than any nuclear “incident”, just as power cuts are going to hit Europe in the next decade or two unless it invests in nuclear technology.

My thoughts are with the Japanese people. Among all the gloomy stories, it was heartening to hear some things were returning to normal in Tokyo, drivers on otherwise empty roads were still stopping at red lights, and you can bet the bullet trains that have restarted still arrive on time to the minute. I can’t think of a people better suited to deal with such a crisis, and I’m sure that in time the country will pull through and be just as great as it was.

One response to “A natural, not nuclear, disaster”

  1. Branko Terzic

    Well said.

    The alternative to nuclear power is fossil fuel (coal or natural gas), not wind or solar. The reason is that new firm demand for electricity can only be met by firm supply, called “dispatchabe”, not by intermittant wind and solar. Think of getting to an elevator and waiting for the wind to blow or sun to shine before the power gets to the electric motor lifitng you to your floor.

    And the world needs more electricity for two reasons: population growth and upward mobility. There are currently 6 billion people in the world and there will be 7 billion not too far off. Of the current population only 2 billion have adequate electricity, 2 billion have inadequate services and the rest have no electricity at all. In the next decade 700 million people will enter the middle class demanding additional energy services for basics of electricity and transportation.

    Reliance on fossil fuels in the future will also exacerbate the greenhouse gas / climate change problem. So, we must think very hard about any abandonment of the nuclear power option.

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