To describe myself as hugely conflicted regarding nuclear power is the wet liberal understatement of the decade. I almost physically writhe with inner conflict.
I have said on many occasions if I had a choice between a coal powered or nuclear powered generating station in my back yard, I’d go for the nuclear option every time.
There is no doubt that the new generation of nuclear power stations are much safer and cleaner than the ones I grew up with, they produce zero carbon and truly gargantuan amounts of electricity.
Although in the UK we have fallen way behind with our power generating infrastructure, we do use a lot of electricity generated by nuclear power. At peak times, up to 20% of our total consumption comes from France, all nuclear. All the Nuclear power stations in France have been running for years, they have a very good safety record and it’s all tres bien.
So just as I’m starting to become confident and relaxed about the coming nuclear age, what’s happening in Japan brings back the nightmares, the contradictions, the regret and confusion.
For arguments sake, imagine that just off the coast of Sendai province there were 5,000 wind turbines. (The equivalent number to produce the same power output as the Fukushima nuclear power plant)
Just imagine you’d watched aerial footage of a massive tsunami toppling them one after another. Total devastation, billions of dollars worth of damage.
And that’s it.
The story would not get another smidgeon of news coverage, it would all be focussed on the tragic loss of life and damage to a huge area of Japan. Over the next few years the turbines would be repaired or replaced and that would be an end to it. Wind nerds like me might be aware of it, but no one else.
No matter what your opinion of nuclear power, we are going to be hearing about this story for a long time to come.
It’s going to join the short but frightening list of massive nuclear accidents. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima Daiichi.
We may not be able to pronounce it very well yet, but I predict we will all learn. Fukushima will enter the lexicon.
I still believe that modern nuclear power stations are safe, until something goes wrong. Cars are safe, until something goes wrong and then you and maybe a few other people can die. Terrible, but the long term, global damage is negligible. Same for planes, ships, coal fired power stations, oil refineries, petro-chemical works etc, etc.
They can all have really nasty things go wrong that get on the news, kill even 100’s of people and cost billions to sort out. They can pollute and despoil the environment, but after a while we clear them up, learn from our mistakes and try and improve them.
But when nuclear power stations go wrong, they really go the whole hog. They go wrong for a long, long time. We don’t think about Chernobyl now, but that happened in 1986 and still no one’s able to live nearer than a few hundred miles from the giant, slowly decaying concrete sarcophagus.
Incidentally the Russians have just asked for some serious dosh to help shore up the crumbling concrete because what is going on inside isn’t going to stop for, well, a few thousand years.
Hardly anyone remembers 3 Mile Island, a nuclear power station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that suffered a partial core meltdown back in 1979. It took 20 years and a government figure of $975 million to clean up the highly dangerous waste. The concrete structure, contaminated with radioactive water, is still there today, still dangerous. No one goes there, 32 years later. It is doubtful that human beings will ever remove it, the human race probably won’t last that long. Maybe an advanced species of cockroach will have a technology far in advance of our own and will work out what to do.
I predict a big upsurge in opposition to nuclear power as a result of what’s just happened in Japan, the fear, at the end of the day, is not irrational, it is a fear based on very real evidence.
But we need the power and we can’t carry on burning shit like coal, gas and oil, many people tell me nuclear is the answer and only silly hippies believe in renewables.
But we have barely started to build a renewable infrastructure, my argument is still, it could be done, a combination of wind, tidal and geo thermal. It could be done, we could build a power generating capacity in the UK which required maintenance but no fuel, ever.
If you had to have either a 100 meter high wind turbine in your back yard, or a small nuclear power station, which would you chose?