The whole world has followed the incredible misfortunes of the Fukushima nuclear generating station. The earthquake that hit Japan was devastating, but the Fukushima station survived . . . only to be overwhelmed by the large tsunami that incapacitated backup power generation systems designed to prevent nuclear fuel rods from overheating following a power failure. The heroic efforts of the plant technicians have so far (March 18) prevented a core meltdown, and the radioactive fallout – although serious – is not likely to have widespread consequences.
Undoubtedly, there are lessons to be learned from Fukushima: plants should not be built on the coast in seismically active areas because of the risk of being flooded by a resulting tsunami. Still this event will affect the willingness of many countries to construct these very costly installations. After the Three Mile Island incident in 1979, the US adopted stringent safety standards for the construction of new nuclear power stations, and none have been built since then.
James Lovelock, a scientist with unimpeachable credentials on climate change, has consistently promoted nuclear power as the only way to generate electricity while lowering the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In 2004 he expressed the view that
“We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources [wind, solar and tidal]; civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear – the one safe, available, energy source – now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet.”
In a more recent address (2008) Lovelock re-iterated:
“I fear that the worst may happen and our survivors will have to adapt to a hot and uncomfortable world. To retain civilisation then, they will need more than ever a secure and reliable source of energy to power the adaptation and for this there is no sensible alternative to nuclear energy.”
George Monbiot also recognizes that we need nuclear energy plants to replace fossil-fuel powered generating stations. Monbiot is concerned by the recent decision of the Chinese Government to suspend approval of nuclear construction pending review of safety standards. He refers to this decision as “the nuclear disaster unfolding in China.” His concern is that China will press forward with its previously declared program of construction of coal-powered plants.
The most lasting fallout from Fukushima could be that nuclear power construction will stall, and the world will not achieve a timely reduction in the use of fossil fuels for the generation of electricity.