What a strange turn of events. Instead of uniting the environmental movement in renewed opposition to nuclear power, the Fukushima disaster in Japan has divided it still further. An increasing number of green advocates, including some very prominent voices, have declared their support for nuclear power as a clean energy option, even as radioactive water accumulates and the timeline for cleaning up the contaminated areas extends by decades. Can they be serious?
They can. The irony of Fukushima is that in forcing us all to confront our deepest fears about the dangers of nuclear power, we find many of them to be wildly irrational -- based on scare stories propagated through years of unchallenged mythology and the repeated exaggerations of self-proclaimed "experts" in the anti-nuclear movement. As the British environmental writer George Monbiot has pointed out, if we took the scientific consensus on nuclear energy as seriously as we take the scientific consensus on climate change, we environmentalists would be telling a very different story.
The science on radiation tells us that the effects of Fukushima are serious but so far much less so than some of the more hyperbolic media coverage might suggest. The power plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., has been releasing enormous quantities of radioactive water into the sea, for example. It sounds scary, but a member of the public would have to eat seaweed and seafood harvested just one mile from the discharge pipe for a year to receive an effective dose of 0.6 millisieverts. To put this in context, every American receives on average 3 millisieverts each year from natural background radiation, and a hundred times more than this in some naturally radioactive areas. As for the Tokyo tap water that was declared unsafe for babies, the highest measured levels of radioactivity were 210 becquerels per liter, less than a quarter of the European legal limit of 1,000 becquerels per liter. Those leaving Tokyo because of this threat will have received more radiation on the airplane flight out than if they had been more rational and stayed put.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, April 15, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 27 Editorial Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Nuclear: An April 10 Op-Ed advocating for nuclear power indicated that to replace Japan's current nuclear generation capacity would require wind farms occupying 1.3 billion acres and more than 50% of the country's total land mass. The correct figures are 1.3 million acres and less than 3% of Japan's land mass.
For the green movement, which is often justifiably accused of making the perfect the enemy of the good, having to confront real-world choices about energy technologies is painful. Most environmentalists assert that a combination of renewables and efficiency can decarbonize our energy supply and save us both from global warming and the presumed dangers of nuclear power. This is technically possible but extremely unlikely in practice. In the messy real world, countries that decide to rely less on nuclear will almost certainly dig themselves even deeper into a dependence on dirty fossil fuels, especially coal.
In the short term, this is already happening. In Germany -- whose government tried to curry favor with a strongly anti-nuclear population by rashly closing seven perfectly safe nuclear plants after the Fukushima crisis began -- coal has already become the dominant factor in electricity prices once again. Regarding carbon dioxide emissions, you can do the math: Just add about 11 million tons per year for each nuclear plant replaced by a coal plant newly built or brought back onto the grid.
In China the numbers become even starker. Coal is cheap there (as are the thousands of human lives lost in extracting it each year), and if the hundred or so new nuclear plants previously proposed in China up to 2030 are not built, it is a fair bet that more than a billion tons can be added to annual global carbon dioxide emissions as a result.
Japan is also heavily dependent on coal, so it is a fair bet that less nuclear power there will add substantially to the country's emissions. No wonder the Japanese are insisting on backing off from the Kyoto climate treaty. Looking at the entire global picture, I estimate that turning away from nuclear power could make the difference between whether the world warms by 2 degrees Celsius (bad but manageable) and 3 degrees Celsius (disastrous) in the next century.
We have already made this mistake once. In the 1970s it looked as if nuclear power was going to play a much bigger role than eventually turned out to be the case. What happened was Three Mile Island, and the birth of an anti-nuclear movement that stopped dozens of half-built or proposed reactors; coal plants were substituted instead. It is therefore fair to say that the environmental movement played a substantial role in causing global warming, surely an ecological error it should learn from in years ahead.