For a few moments this weekend, our worst fears were reignited. An earthquake of 6.8 magnitude on the Richter scale struck off the east coast of Japan and created a tsunami. This is perilously close to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant that was so dangerously damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and workers that are cleaning up that plant were briefly evacuated because of fears that the same thing could happen again.
Luckily, in this case, the quake was considerably smaller than before, and the tsunami it created injured only one person, rather than causing the apocalyptic scenes and massive death toll of the previous one – the waves that reached the coast were only 20cm high this time. So it seems that the world continues to be safe from the possibility of another major nuclear meltdown along the lines of the Chernobyl incident of 1986. However, this latest scare does force us to ask tough questions about what our energy mix should be made up of.
The problem we face is that, of all the major energy technologies currently available to us, nuclear is the most sustainable option that can realistically provide the huge amounts of energy our current society needs. Nuclear is essentially a carbon-free energy source – it doesn't release any greenhouse gases in the process of creating energy, and only a relatively small amount in the extraction of uranium from the ground. And it produces far more energy than any renewable technology, all while taking up less space and being much quicker to scale up to the necessary levels.
At the same time, it's potentially very dangerous, as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima have all shown us.
So what can we do? It seems clear that we should not see nuclear as a long-term option. Over a long enough timescale, nuclear power raises a number of complicated questions that we may not be able to answer – what do we do with the waste, for one thing; and how can we ever be truly safe from meltdowns and leakages caused by natural disasters like the Japanese tsunami? This means that we must continue to aim for a long-term policy that combines the scaling-up of renewable technologies like solar, tidal, and wind power (as well as many other possibilities) with a reduction in the amount of energy we consume.
But while we chase those policy goals, we must also be pragmatic about the risks that face us today. We need to cut down on our carbon emissions much more quickly than renewable technologies can be developed, and this means that we must take a sensible approach to nuclear power and consider it as a carbon-free technology that, although dangerous, can be of use to us in the short-term.
Very few nations have regular earthquakes, and the safety technology of nuclear plants has increased massively since the days of Chernobyl. Consequently, we must accept that the risk of a nuclear meltdown is relatively small; while the risk of catastrophic climate change if we do not reduce our emissions is huge. It's time to balance those probabilities, assess the risks, and choose a technology that allows us to avoid climate change in the short-term while providing the energy we need to keep society running while we pursue other long-term energy goals like reducing consumption and growing renewables. And that may well mean being brave and choosing nuclear.
[ Richter scale, Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, Chernobyl incident, carbon-free energy source, greenhouse gases, renewable technology, Three Mile Island, natural disasters, Japanese tsunami, long-term policy, policy goals, carbon emissions, nuclear power, catastrophic climate ]