As you presumably know by now, the earthquake in Japan damaged a series of nuclear reactors at the Fukujima Daiichi plant. Due to damage from the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, safety systems failed and the reactors could not be shut down the way they were supposed. Hydrogen gas built up and several buildings surrounding the reactor cores have exploded, though the reactor cores themselves seem to be holding up (there is some reporting now that the core of one reactor may have been breached, but it’s still unconfirmed whether that’s true, or how extensive the breach might be if so). It’s a rapidly developing situation, and could get very bad without warning.
This is bad and certainly cause for concern, though not for alarm. Local citizens seem to be evacuating calmly and safely, and workers at the facility are doing all they can to contain the situation.
Stepping back from the immediate drama of the fight to prevent a full nuclear meltdown, the crisis comes at a critical moment in political debates about the role of nuclear power in the global energy economy, and especially whether the US should encourage new nuclear development. It might seem like small potatoes while workers are still risking their lives to control the damaged reactors, but American politics and policy are topics we as bloggers can influence, while events in Fukujima are not.
Chris Mooney surveys the scene and suggests that this crisis will be a good measure of whether liberals are science deniers:
When I and others demonstrated, during the George W. Bush years, that political conservatives had grown very strongly anti-science, we often heard what I would call the “nuclear counterargument.” The point was made that, hey, during the 1960s and 1970s, it was the political left that attacked science illegitimately–particularly around nuclear power….
A centerpoint of this “nuclear counterargument” was that the left used fears of reactor meltdowns and the escape of radiation to unjustifiably scare the public. And if that’s true, then this is certainly the ideal moment for such misuse of science to occur again. So the question is, will it?
It’s almost like a natural experiment in the politicization of science. …
So here’s the question: Will leading environmentalists, elected Democrats, and other influentials on the other side of the aisle be caught engaging in similar abuses in the unfolding nuclear debate? Will they say things provably incorrect, in the service of trying to tank nuclear power?
Or are liberals and conservatives today truly different when it comes to handling scientific information, no matter what their core political impulses may be?
I, for one, am betting on the latter outcome. Just read comments at my blog: It’s a bunch of old lefties saying how they’ve come around about nuclear power and how they’re willing to credit the benefits as well as the costs. Or just look at Matthew Yglesias: A good liberal who has just written, “I do think it’s worth speaking up for a nuclear industry a bit. The question is safe compared to what?“…
I’m happy to be proved wrong, of course–but I’m betting that the “nuclear counterargument,” even if it may validly describe the political left during the 1970s, has little or no bearing on the politics of science in the present.
And the evidence seems to back the conclusion that liberals will handle things differently. In addition to Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum is pointing out that its high cost – not safety – is the main thing holding nuclear power back, and that the cost is only high because fossil fuel prices don’t incorporate all their costs to society. Josh Marshall points out that, while nuclear accidents are clearly pretty worrisome, fossil fuels create catastrophic damage in their accidents (Exxon Valdez, BP, coal mine collapses), but also when they are used perfectly (global warming, asthma, acid rain, lead pollution, cancer).
A growing number of global warming activists have been saying for years that we cannot rule nuclear energy out as part of a carbon-free energy system. Wind, solar, geothermal, and other energy sources have tremendous potential, but nuclear has a lot of advantages in terms of reliability and consistency. The others will surely catch up, but they aren’t quite there yet, and to keep atmospheric greenhouse gases at safe levels, we need to use all available technologies. (Nuclear is probably also better than the others in terms of providing a consistent stream of energy to the grid, while the others will tend to fluctuate more, making them less useful for baseload at the moment.) A reminder of the risks possible from nuclear power may cool some people’s enthusiasm for nuclear (as there was a decline in enthusiasm for offshore oil drilling last summer), but I expect we’ll see it rebound.
Of course, the “everything has problems” angle can go too far. The National Journal’s Julia Edwards tries, for instance, to balance the long-term radiation risks from a nuclear core meltdown against … ”killings of thousands of birds” by wind farms. She doesn’t mention that researchers are finding better ways to prevent those deaths, nor that residual radiation from a nuclear meltdown at Fukujima won’t be good for birds or sea life in the area. I don’t think anyone, even the birds, would have a hard time with that choice.
There’s also a point to be made here about the importance of international cooperation on energy issues. Part of the reason we know as much as we do about what’s happening at Fukujima is that information has to be reported back to the IAEA. IAEA got the Nobel Peace Prize a few years back for their work preventing nuclear arms proliferation, inspecting sites in Iraq, decommissioning the South African nuclear program, limiting the Iranian nuclear program, and trying to control North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
In addition to that anti-proliferation role, IAEA also has a mission of supporting and even promoting safe nuclear energy production. They provide technical assistance, even helping countries build nuclear reactors. This includes assistance in the design and construction of plants, but also in the design and implementation of regulatory systems to monitor nuclear plants and nuclear fuels, to ensure safe disposal of waste and to guarantee that nuclear plants’ safety system are fully functional.
When Bangladesh decides to build a nuclear plant, the international community is there, ready to help ensure that it is the safest plant possible. When it decides to build another coal or natural gas plant, no one provides that level of assistance, to ensure that coal mines are build to maximum safety, that coal ash (which is often quite radioactive) doesn’t spill catastrophically, or to install scrubbers and other state of the art emissions controls.
The ideal thing would be for a climate treaty which creates a system like the IAEA for carbon-emitting fuels and which incorporates the true costs of such fuels into the price of the energy sold, but in the mean time, there’s plenty to be said for phasing out coal and gas in favor of nuclear energy, with a preference for solar, geothermal, wind, hydroelectric, and other renewable sources as appropriate, and switching to them as they become cheaper and more efficient. The crisis in Japan certainly reminds us of the risks associated with nuclear energy, but we shouldn’t forget the enormous, probably greater, risks associated with continued fossil fuel use.
Updated: Somehow the last part of the last sentence got truncated. Fixed.