Needless to say, this Japanese situation is causing a lot of countries to both examine the safety of their own reactors, and question the wisdom of nuclear power as an energy source. Germany shut their plant down in order to do full inspections. However, no matter what our local power companies or government representatives tell us, we know that our nuclear plants (though not actually manned by Homer Simpson) are probably not as tightly maintained as the those of the Japanese. Anyone who’s been to Japan can tell you that although there are a lot of communication quirks, things generally run well and incredibly smoothly. We look pretty backwards in comparison. So when they can’t get their nuclear plant under control, you know we definitely couldn’t under similar conditions.
As a recent NY Times article points out, more deaths occur yearly due to coal than to nuclear energy, including Chernobyl. That’s one way of measuring things—body counts. The other way of measuring cost was brought up in another article in that paper focusing on the cracked and leaking “sarcophagus” that encloses what’s left of Chernobyl, and how “the contaminated area is around the size of Switzerland,” and “will be affected for more than 300 years.” That doesn’t mean it will be clean in 300 years, but that it will be manageable. The 200 tons of melted nuclear stuff that has burned down into the earth inside the sarcophagus won’t be approachable for the foreseeable future. We don’t usually make things without a shelf life.
As that article says “the death of a nuclear reactor has a beginning… but it doesn’t have an end.” The comparison to the contaminated area being the size of Switzerland is sobering. Can you imagine suddenly Switzerland is gone? Contaminated? Off limits? Can you imagine lots of contaminated Switzerlands dotting the globe? Huge swaths of the oceans and lakes also off limits?
We know just enough to light these fires, but we don’t yet know how to put them out. Would you set something on fire in your house if you had no idea how to really, really put it out (you’re not allowed to toss it out the window in this analogy)? That mind-boggling scope of contamination and long timeframe is the difference between nuclear and coal. Though, realistically, coal is not the answer. It has been responsible for much of the climate change we are experiencing, and it is not a viable energy option going forward. Besides, it will run out. Quite a few environmentally aware folks have advocated re-approaching nuclear power, as it won’t cause the same kind of climate change that we know for certain coal is causing. I saw Bill Gates at TED last year make a presentation about small nuclear plants that re-use spent fuel. The idea of dealing with the fuel disposal issue seemed very smart, but now, after Japan, does any reactor seem like a safe, secure and viable way forward? There are just no guarantees with this stuff.
Some places are looking at alternatives, and some of them are working! Not just theories either. Portugal—little Portugal!—45% of its electricity will come from renewable sources this year (that’s up from 17% five years ago)! To get some perspective on that, Obama’s goal for the U.S. is to run on 20-25% renewable energy sources by 2025. Those renewable sources in Portugal are wind, hydropower, solar and ocean waves. Not all of those are right for everywhere in the U.S., I admit, but some of them are (the U.S. has geothermal as an option, as well).
This amazing change meant a big outlay for Portugal and her people—they pay plenty for electricity (though maybe that will level out after the initial capital outlays have been paid back). They were laughed at by Berlusconi, amongst others. Something tells me Berlusconi won’t be having the last laugh on much of anything these days. But Portugal’s case proves it CAN be done, and in a short time—five years! And they’re not exactly the richest country in Europe either.
The Swedish city of Kristainstad took a little longer—a decade, but they’ve made even more impressive progress. That city of 800,000 (the size of present day Detroit) uses NO fossil fuels to heat their homes, offices and businesses. No oil, no coal, no gas. 20 years ago all their heat came from fossil fuels (nuclear wasn’t an option, I guess). As it’s a farming region, they went for bio fuels, as opposed to wind or solar. Even many of the local cars run on fuel produced from bio fuels. All the city vehicles do.
This is a combined fuel and heating plant in that town. It was built with the help of a company, Fallon Consultants, in Victoria, British Columbia.
What do they use? Potato peelings, wood scraps, manure, used cooking oil, stale cookies and pig guts. Ugh—but it works. Truth be told, not every single amp and bit of fuel is produced this way in town (though all the heat is). But everything connected with the city itself uses this fuel, and the city is also trying to convince locals to convert their private cars to use this fuel as well. So, though they are not quite at zero carbon footprint, they are getting there.
Even the pretty conservative town of Salina, Kansas is converting to geothermal and other technologies and unplugging when they can. The government didn’t mandate those changes—they just want to save money.
Small African villages are using power sources that result in not being reliant on the national grid. The local sources are renewable and cheaper than the grid, too.
So, before we throw up our hands and say nuclear is our only option, maybe we should look at what these other places have already done. These are not just ideas and schemes that some pie-in-the-sky-green-advocate is pontificating about. This is what some practical-minded communities have already accomplished.
Maybe the Japanese tragedy will cause more folks to give these options a second glance.