Helplessness and humility in the nuclear age

There are natural disasters. And there are man-made disasters. Never have the two been conjoined as in Japan right now.

Helplessness and humility in the nuclear age

Wally Santana/AP

Last week vast swaths of the country were devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami. Now the country faces a nuclear crisis of equal ferocity. A cascading series of failures and explosions at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima following the earthquake and tidal wave has allowed radioactive clouds to drift up from the broken reactors and threaten densely populated areas to the south, including Tokyo. The situation may worsen in the coming days and it is possible the toll from this man-made disaster will eventually exceed that from the natural calamity.

The entire world is in shock at this rapid turn of events.

Nuclear accidents activate a deep-seated sense of panic and helplessness within the public, not unlike the fear of terrorist attacks. And whether rational or not, for the first time in a generation we must all face this fear.

The importance of nuclear power has waxed and waned significantly over the past 50 years. During the “Atoms for Peace” era of the 1950s, nuclear energy was considered the key to safe and abundant electricity. The Eisenhower administration once claimed nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter.” Such delirium proved unfounded, although nuclear did establish itself as a prodigious producer of power in many countries. In Ontario, it currently generates half the electricity. But accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 led to mounting concerns over cost and safety, and nuclear power fell out of favour. Lately, however, a nuclear renaissance has been afoot. Greater emphasis on climate change and lowering carbon emissions has cast power from fission in a new and positive light.

Now Fukushima has changed all that again. This past weekend Germany announced an immediate moratorium on its nuclear program. Switzerland did the same thing. Italy, which abandoned nuclear power in 1987 in the wake of Chernobyl, has been contemplating a return. This now appears in some peril. And in the U.S., a fragile bipartisan consensus on massive reinvestment in nuclear power may also be in danger of collapsing.

While the speed of these reversals may be understandable given the panic that has set in, a proper reassessment of nuclear power must adopt a more thoughtful process to properly weigh its particular advantages and disadvantages. (Public hearings begin next week in Ontario on expansion of the Darlington nuclear site.)

It is important to note that the Fukushima crisis differs from previous nuclear disasters in substantial ways. Both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were caused by human error and faulty equipment. As such, it is possible to prevent the reoccurrence of such events through design changes and better monitoring. To its credit, the nuclear industry has had a reasonably impressive safety record over the past 25 years, largely due to lessons learned from these past problems.

However, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami were entirely unpredictable events, unprecedented in size and devastation. This foiled all emergency responses. When the earthquake knocked out the main power source for the reactors’ cooling systems, diesel generators kicked in. But those were swamped by the subsequent tidal wave. Tertiary batteries could only provide a few hours of power. When this ran out, the fuel rods overheated and the resulting pressure blew the roofs off several buildings housing the reactors, exposing the air to radioactive steam. Later, pumps rigged to use seawater as backup coolant failed and meltdown fears grew. Every contingency plan has been thwarted by bad luck and the scope of the original calamity.

All forms of energy entail complicated trade-offs. Some risks are extremely rare but devastating, others insidiously commonplace but tiny in effect. Fossil fuel, in all its forms, pollutes the air and releases greenhouse gases. Additionally, oil sands are unsightly and pose a danger to nearby wildlife. Deep-sea oil drilling entails the possibility of dramatic blow-outs. And alternative energy sources such as wind and solar are far more expensive than conventional sources and thus entail trade-offs of another kind. No form of energy is free from risks or challenges.

The crisis in Japan should not spell the end of the nuclear era. But it will require much greater attention to fail-safe procedures. The prospect for unprecedented natural disasters will have to be recalculated. And the public will have to be sold once more on the benefits of energy from nuclear reactors. Whatever the outcome in Fukushima, this has been a humbling moment for the entire nuclear industry. And yet another reminder of humanity’s persistent frailty.

The multiple tragedies in Japan have prompted generous offers of aid and money from around the world. Rogers Communications Inc., the parent company of Maclean’s, is part of this effort. Rogers and Fido wireless customers can text ASIA to 30333 to donate $5 to earthquake relief efforts; 100 per cent of all donations will go to the Canadian Red Cross Japan Earthquake/Asia-Pacific Tsunami Fund.

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