Time to look at the post-nuclear age

Time to look at the post-nuclear age

Fukushima marks the end of the era of atomic energy illusions and the beginning of the post-nuclear age. Now classified at level 7 on the international scale of nuclear accidents (INES), the Japanese disaster is comparable to the Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine 1986 in terms of its “considerable radioactive effects on the human health and on the environment”.

The magnitude 9 earthquake and the giant tsunami that blasted the northeast of Japan on March 11 with unprecedented brutality not only caused the Fukushima disaster but also destroyed all of certainties of proponents of the civil nuclear programmes.

Before Fukushima the nuclear industry found itself in a curiously idyllic period, with the construction of tens of nuclear plants planned in a range of countries. There were two reasons for this: first, the fear that oil reserves will be exhausted by the end of this century and the exponential growth of demand for energy in the giant emerging countries (China, India, and Brazil) made nuclear power appear like the ultimate substitute energy source.

Clean alternative

Second, the soul-searching provoked by climate change caused by global warming led many, paradoxically, to opt for nuclear energy as a ‘clean’ — non-CO2-producing — alternative.

These two arguments were accompanied by other familiar ones: the desire for energy sovereignty and less dependence on imported hydrocarbons; the low cost of nuclear energy; and, though it may seem paradoxical at this period, safety, given that the world’s 441 nuclear plants (half of them in western Europe) have experienced only three major accidents in 50 years.

All of these arguments, none patently absurd, were shattered by the scope of the Fukushima catastrophe. The new panic now spreading around the world is based on certain observations.

In the first place, and in contrast to the disaster at Chernobyl — which was blamed partly, for ideological reasons, on the backwards state of Soviet technology — this catastrophe took place in the world’s hypertechnological centre, where one would suppose that Japan’s authorities and technicians would take every conceivable precaution to avoid a civil nuclear disaster, especially considering that it was the only country to experience an atomic attack and the hell it caused, in 1945.

If the world’s most competent scientific culture was unable to avoid this, does it make sense to allow others to continue playing with atomic fire?

In second place, the temporal and spacial consequences of the Fukushima disaster are terrifying. Because of elevated levels of radioactivity, the area around the plant will be uninhabitable for millennia, and the area around that for centuries. Millions of people will have no choice but to move their home and their work, whether industry, fishing or farming, to less contaminated areas.

Beyond the most contaminated areas, the radioactivity released will effect the health of tens of million of Japanese, as well as large numbers of their Korean, Russian, and Chinese neighbours, and perhaps other inhabitants of the northern hemisphere. There could be no clearer demonstration of the fact that a nuclear accident is never local, but always planetary.

Third, Fukushima has shown that so-called ‘energy sovereignty’ is very relative matter. The production of nuclear energy presupposes a new form of reliance: ‘technological dependence.’ Despite its immense technological advancement, Japan had to draw on the assistance of experts from the US, Russia, and France, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to try and control the situation. Moreover, the planet’s supply of the uranium that powers nuclear plants is very limited and, at the present rate of use, will be exhausted in 80 years — in other words, at about the same time oil gives out.

For these and other reasons, defenders of the nuclear option must admit that Fukushima has radically changed the energy equation. There are now four demands: to stop building new nuclear plants; dismantle those more than 30 years old; greatly increase energy conservation; and shift usage to renewable sources as much as possible. Only in this way can the planet, and humanity, be saved.