Fukushima – And what does this have to do with me?


This is in fact a question you might want to ask yourself. I did, and in the process came to my standpoint opposing the use of nuclear power.

First of all, let’s state some facts about the person who is writing this blog (me).

I am not:

* a hippie

* a liberal

* a tree-hugger

* a socialist

* some sort of political radical

* a shit stirrer

* scared

Which is probably what I’d be called from people opposing my stand point in this matter

I am:

*  a critical thinker

* a sceptic

* someone who believes in science

* someone who tries to apply rational judgment

* someone who strives for simplicity to minimize the human impact on this planet

Knowing this enables you to put my opinion into perspective. Now let’s have a look at some aspects that helped me to build my opinion.

1. Perceived threat versus real threat

Since the Japan earthquake, I noticed a remarkable difference in international media coverage on the incidents. While the problems in the Fukushima power plants were covered by continual headlines in some countries in Europe, the UK and the US media were far more conservative in reporting, and also had some sort of time-lag between what they reported and the actual developments. So, while in Europe already people are marching on the streets (caused by actual fear of having a similar incident happening in nuclear-plant dense Europe), America is shifting their attention more slowly. However, after nuclear meltdown already occurred in two of the Fukushima reactors and a third one about to share the same fate, there isn’t much to cover up anymore. Naturally, stories about radioactive pollution make people scared. But should they? Or is this single incident too far away from all of us (excluding the Japanese people of course) to even care? Let’s look at some facts. Here is a map showing the distribution of nuclear power plants in the world. Look up the place where your home is and the number of nuclear plants surrounding you. Do you notice a shift in perspective? It might be related to transforming a vague “fear of the unknown” into a more real perception of what a random power plant blowing up somewhere in Japan might have to do with your opinion.

Nuclear power plants of the world. Notice anything? Most countries build their power plants ALONG THE BORDERS TO THEIR NEIGHBOURS

2. Obvious problems with nuclear energy

Nothing new here: we know that, with nuclear power, if things go wrong, they can go wrong horribly. A statistic often mentioned by the pro-atomic energy groups, is that things will go wrong with a very low probability – I think it was once in 10 000 years (0.0001). Well, but then we have about 500 of these plants on the planet so far, which would adjust the total probability quite a bit upwards. And who computes these statistics anyway? Probabilities can change; for example consider the probability on top of a continental plate versus a region of traditionally high tectonic activity (yes, for example in Japan!). How do we deal with the probability of crazy people crashing airplanes into something (e.g., a nuclear power plant)?

Then, the radioactive waste. Where does it go? Goodness, I sound like somebody from the good ole seventies. Shoot it into space? Dump it on the sea floor? Ship it to Africa? These options might sound cynical, but all of them have been seriously considered in the past.

3. Alternatives

So what is the alternative? To date, still most energy stems from the highly inefficient (in terms of generated energy vs. energy stored in the material used to create it) and polluting (in terms of CO2 producing) coal based power plants.Relative to those, nuclear power plants seem quite “clean” (not considering the radioactive waste here). Well, and then we have the alternative sustainable energies like water and sun. Critics say that these aren’t as sustainable as marketed (after all, solar panels can break too and then they have to be recycled which costs – yes, energy). However, I think that for the advancement of a product , that product needs a fair chance of getting into demand – then, economic competition will promote these products getting more cost-efficient.

4. Meltdown comparison: Chernobyl versus Fukushima

I think that the Fukushima incident has a higher chance of transforming the public opinion than the Chernobyl desaster of 1986 had. The Chernobyl reactor stood in a remote location in Ukraine, former Soviet Union, far away from the “pulse of the time”. The accident happened during a test, which lead to a fast series of combustions in the inner containment of the reactor, sending a massive radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. This hasn’t happened in Fukushima yet, so “it’s not that bad”. Also the Chernobyl reactor used different chemical compounds (like Graphite blocks) than the Japanese power plant did.

Why I think the Fukushima incident will change public opinion more is because:

1. Media coverage is better and faster these days. We have the internet where everyone on the planet can find out what happens in another part of the planet. We are able to let “informal sources” get a voice, like the affected people of the area.

2. Appeasement tactics of the Japanese government. Updates on the severity of the incident were only released if it wasn’t avoidable anymore, and people were told “everything is under control” although that was surely not the case – maybe to prevent mass panics. This is the most effective way to reduce trust in governments saying that they can control something.

3. Japan is a highly industrialized society, including highest standards in technology. If the Japanese can’t control their nuclear power, who can?

4. In Chernobyl, meltdown occurred very quickly, which fits the description of an “accident”. In Fukushima however, despite the problems within the first reactor were recognized fast (overheating), and measures were taken quickly to resolve the problem (cooling it with sea water), it didn’t help to prevent nuclear meltdown. Then, the same thing happened again in the second reactor, and now again the same thing happens in the third (Chernobyl * 3) in the course of several days. This is a lengthy process that doesn’t fit my definition of “accident” anymore. It’s more like “not being able to control a situation”.

5. We’re told nuclear power is safe. Now, we’re being told nuclear power is safe “until something unexpected happens” (like an earthquake). This will open up people’s minds about what other things that are unexpected we aren’t expecting to deal with in the future. So while in theory we can control it, in reality we can’t. Unfortunately, reality is more real than theory.

6. in 1986, nuclear power was still relatively “new”. I think people are faster in forgiving a “novel” technology than one that should be established and running safely and smoothly by now (2011).

5. Building an opinion

Concluding the arguments I mentioned in 1-4, my opinion is that I am against the continued use of nuclear power, because the risks outweigh the benefits. I realize that without nuclear power current levels of energy consumption aren’t possible because of the lack of alternatives. I think the only way to minimize the impact that will result from losing nuclear power plants (25-30% of energy in the US) will be to reduce our energy consumption by 25-30% (see my post here).

I hope I could provide some information on how I come to my stand point. For a contrasting view, see this post. Nota bene, the expert from MIT that gives a statement from his point of view, is an expert on product development, not a nuclear energy physicist.

I also respectfully disagree with their statement that “There was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity”. These days the media report that some japanese people got exposed to high levels of radiation, showing symptoms, also seventeen US Marines that were on an aircraft carrier on the coast of Japan were exposed to the maximal radiation dose advised per month within one day, which is significant enough of a radioactivity release to feel out of comfort in my view.

I appreciate your comments – also if you have arguments that might convince me to rethink my opinion and support the continued use of nuclear power, please feel free to share them. I’m open for discourse.

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