Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Nuclear Debate Reignited

by Michael Kennedy

The nuclear debate has arisen once more, not that it ever left. With the continuing tragedy in Japan from the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, focus has been on the nuclear power plants damaged by the Earth's rumblings. The Fukishima plant has had three explosions since the quake less than a week ago and an exclusion zone tens of kilometres wide enforced. 200,000 people have been evacuated. Radioactive materials have escaped and have been detected around the vicinity of the plant. There is no denying that this is a disaster, though it has not reached meltdown proportions, despite the fear-mongering that the media has engaged in, a media which has jumped on board the numerous disasters which have occurred in the past few months and milked them and resold the gravitas of the situation in consumable units.

To put the nuclear disaster in perspective, zero people have died (yet) from it. Chernobyl killed 43. Mining of coal, to fuel coal power plants among other uses has resulted in up to 100,000 deaths1. Coal also potentially threatens to change a climate which humanity has become accustomed to, a climate we have become reliant on to sustain the existing population. Tens of thousands are dead from the quake and tsunami itself, but this event has nevertheless reignited debate and given ammunition to the anti-nuclear movement.

It should be clearly stated that nuclear power is the best of a bad lot, with emphasis put on the fact that it is part of a bad lot. Even long term supporters of nuclear power would have to admit, that is is far from perfect (though those with a direct financial interest in the industry may disagree). It is difficult and costly to build a plant that is safe, in a safe location, it is difficult to decommission safely, something that there is no good procedure for yet and worst of all, leaves behind dangerous waste which must be kept away from people, from living things and from entering the ecosystem, water or air cycle, for tens of thousands of years. The fact that after a magnitude 9 quake, and 10 metre tidal wave the plant has held up reasonably well is a testament that the immediate dangers of a well build plant are often overstated.

Nuclears long lasting legacy.

The issue with nuclear power lies in the waste it created. Waste that remains long after the water which was boiled to create the electricity has cooled, long after the electricity has been consumed, long after the individual who used the power has died, long after the device which was used has been discarded, quite likely even long after the civilisation that used the power to drive its economy and sustain itself has ceased to exist. To believe that it is possible to take care of this waste for this period of time is frankly laughable. For a society which cannot plan more than a few years in advance, taking on the responsibility of ensuring that spent fuel from a nuclear reactor remains tightly locked away and trapped, is not a responsibility that we should be taking with, or even remotely capable of handling.

While nuclear power may provide ample energy, it creates a debt, a long lasting debt. Future generations will be burdened with the cost of dealing with the waste, with potential issues from it leaking, with potential deaths, cancers and mutations from the leak, for something they didn't use. What if King Ur-Nammu from the Ur civilisation 4000 years ago, in order to power an entertainment device left behind a toxic package which the current inhabitants of Mesopotamia, the modern day Iraqi's still had to concern themselves about, and contend with? Is it morally justifiable to create such a long lasting debt to satisfy contemporary needs? This is, in this authors opinion, the one aspect of nuclear power which turns it from a 'bad, but definitely usable for now' source of power to a 'definitely powerful, but just wrong' one. Is it foolish to forgo the use of nuclear power for the moral purpose of saving future generations of this debt? It's a complex issue. It could be argued that future generations would inherit indirectly benefits gained from the use of nuclear power today in the form of technical and medical advancements, and this is indeed a good argument, but the lifetime of the waste means that these benefits must last many times longer than any civilisation has lasted for. Also, what benefit do they gain from modern day squandering and reckless use of power? From using power to run larger and larger TV's, home theaters, unnecessary street lighting, production of goods purely to sustain a decadent, consumerist lifestyle and to sustain an obsolete economic model which only a few really benefit from?

This raises another issue, which is at the real heart of the nuclear debate. From those who vehemently oppose it, to its supporters, it has to be realised by all who engage in debate, that nuclear is only good compared to other bad and insufficiently powerful sources of power. Even some environmentalists are accepting that nuclear power may be necessary, as it is less evil than coal. Renewable energies, while inarguably much cleaner and better, aren't reliable enough and don't provide the quantity of energy that modern civilisation seeks to consume. The issue is how did we reach a state where considering such options become a necessity?

Is it a necessity?

It appears necessary to find sources of power which can meet current consumption levels because it is assumed that the consumption of power is necessary. But quick observation shows this isn't true. Quite easily, power consumption can be cut by simply eliminating the most wasteful behaviours. Leaving lights on in rooms when not in use, something commercial establishments commonly due. Removing unnecessary street lighting and 'decorative' lighting which only exists to cast light for visual effect. Planning shopping trips better to eliminate frequent drives to pick up a few items and so on. Household devices have also become more energy hungry. TV's of old used to have a definitely on/off button, whereas now all appliances have a 'standby' mode, of little use, but a mode where the appliance still draws power. TV's are becoming larger and much more power hungry. Computer monitors larger and the computers themselves draw more and more power as they run faster processors and more powerful graphics cards. Add to that, the increasing list of devices, the DVD player, the PVR, the set top box, the modem router, the home theater and its easy to see why household energy usage is increasing, and for what?

But looking further out, we see vast amounts of energy being used to manufacture consumable and quickly replaced electronic items, marketed to have a short shelf life, designed to become quickly obsoleted by the next product. Then there is the energy used to produces a cornucopia of goods which no one really needs, energy used to market it, and energy used by people to have a job to earn the money to buy these goods.

Everywhere you look, you see a society built upon the assumption that energy is limitless. The city of Melbourne is geographically speaking, one of the largest in the world. New suburbs are built around the car. There is a lack of corner stores, as all stores are centralised into shopping centres. No public transport and few nearby working opportunities. The preoccupation with growth is creating suburbs up to 40km and more away from the CBD, which require people to use more and more fuel in order to go to work and back to earn a living. Our economic and social system, as we currently maintain it, require growth, require consumption and the production of surplus goods and services, all energy consuming activities.

But what if a change in the economic and social order could result in a state of existence by which a good standard of living was maintained, but with far less extraneous energy use? This certainly is possible but whether it would remove the need to consider nuclear is unlikely.

How did we reach this state?

This begs a deeper question. How did we reach a state where in order to maintain our current system of civilisation, we must choose between the horrendous pollution of fossil fuels, and the morally repugnant nuclear, which as the potential for quite severe accidents?

Humanity and civilisation has quite simply grown faster than the means to support it sustainably have. There is no escaping the fact that we have not restrained our growth and demand for resources and chose not to wait till a demand for power and resources could be satiated sustainably before creating the demand. Restraint is a much needed but lacking quality in modern civilisation. Had we, upon the discovery of the use of fossil fuels, been able to think ahead, to take into account their finiteness, carefully planned our growth so as to be within the limits of these resources, this debate perhaps won't be occurring. While it may not be reasonable to have known about climate change, or how quickly these fossil fuels may be exhausted, the industrial system marched on without any restraint or planning.

The crisis isn't simply about where to get power next, it goes much deeper than that. The nuclear debate, a debate about which of the two evils we will choose is the result of a population and industrial system which was allowed to grow to a size beyond its own capacity to support itself sustainably. Renewable energies could be viable if civilisation as a whole has the will and capacity to restrict its size and consumption within that which nature can support, but such a change of perspective is unlikely to come about with leaders who are beholden to commercial interested, to big business and who, because of the democratic political system, would have extreme difficulty in enacting unpopular, but necessary changes.

While some political schools of thought try to resist any challenge to the current status quo, it is necessary to look deeper than the nuclear/no nuclear dichotomy and challenge the assumptions about the necessity to use the quantity of energy we use now and to challenge the automatic assumption that further growth must be accommodated as is inevitable.

Our societies approach to the energy supply problems that we face have always been to force change in the source of energy, but perhaps we should look at both sides of the equation. Perhaps the issue of finding the resources isn't simply to force more resources, but to also adapt ourselves and accept the limitations of what the planet can provide and adjust ourselves, our own practices and assumptions and social morals in order to make our lifestyle more compatible the resources our planet can provide. This requires changes which most people would immediately dismiss as a pipe dream, as impossible, but unfortunately we are left with little choice.