That nuclear power frightens many more than it kills is well known - the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents attest to that. To grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe that has been visited on Japan and to develop an understanding of the events, we sorely need a coherent narrative. Unfortunately, what we seem to have is a lot closer to a jumble best captured by Lewis Carroll in the recitation "of cabbages and kings and why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings."
There's a compelling need for a perspective based on solid evidence and assessments to help guide our decisions as they pertain to management of the crisis and subsequently a plan for energy futures. In the unfolding tragedy in Japan - the earthquake and the tsunami - depicting the ferocity of Mother Nature to deliver unforgiving destruction and pain is the central story. And yet, we have grafted onto this bleak tale our anxieties about nuclear risks, driven largely by incomplete information.
The problems at the site with the reactors are serious, but reports on traces of radioactivity on spinach or bubbling seawater need to be thoroughly evaluated with respect to the local context. Minimizing health risks is the goal requiring a rational response best suited to the circumstances. Dialling down the rhetoric on threat levels should allow us to gain a clearer picture of the overall situation.
The social amplification of risk is a constant companion in any disastrous event. The capability of any government to make meaning of complex and contradictory information that changes by the hour is compromised in such situations - witness Hurricane Katrina, the BP Gulf of Mexico drilling rig disaster, floods in Australia and others.
A return to emphasis on facts, validated by multiple sources of evidence, will always remain the hallmark for credible actions. If we do so, the lessons we learn and the subsequent choices we make about our energy futures will be relatively clear.
The global challenge and threat of climate change is the backdrop against which a number of decisions will have to be made in Canada and other countries, including Japan. The role of nuclear power in providing a credible part of the solution to the global energy mix that is carbon free will be compromised if fear and institutional paralysis become the norm. That would remove an important degree of freedom in the plans for providing sufficient energy to a growing global population striving for an improved quality of life.
To meet the growth in energy demand, the fundamental strategy should be to rule options in, not rule them out. Specific local and regional circumstances will determine the appropriate mix for energy supply amongst resources such as hydro, solar, wind, nuclear and bioenergy, with an emphasis on declining use of fossil fuels over time.
Closer to home, there are a number of questions. Should Ontario reverse its decision on building new nuclear reactors? Or should the federal environmental assessment hearings currently under way for Darlington be delayed?
Given that it will take at least eight to 10 years before such a project is completed, there's sufficient time to incorporate lessons learned and adapt to changing circumstances. The review is a quasi-judicial hearing with sufficient authorities to call relevant evidence to be examined in a transparent public process. There's little merit in introducing a significant delay in reaching a decision.
Internationally, the reaction has been mixed to the problems of the reactors in Japan - from cautious retreat, to a slowdown, to a re-examination of options. German Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to have blinked when she called for a three-month pause - at least to placate a vociferous anti-nuclear lobby in an election year. Ontario's decision to proceed according to plans is remarkable even as the province prepares for an election in October. If one were searching for a definition of leadership, you couldn't do much better than this.
Jatin Nathwani holds the Ontario Research Chair in Public Policy for Sustainable Energy Management at the University of Waterloo.