But more alarming was the sudden shift in the industrializing nations of the developing world. China suspended all current construction of nuclear reactors - at least 25 major projects. In India, environment minister Jairam Ramesh planned to review and possibly scrap all nuclear projects along the west coast, including a vital facility planned at Ratnagiri, south of Mumbai.
These countries were not building nuclear plants to save mo-
ney: They are considerably more expensive than gas or coal plants. China and India and a dozen other countries are going nuclear because they want to meet their climate-change commitments and reduce atmospheric pollution. For these governments, going nuclear was ecologically revolutionary.
It may be possible in Europe and North America to talk about reducing consumer demand for electricity and using alternatives instead of nukes. But none of that applies in Asia, Africa or South America, where the most pressing demand in the next two decades will be to turn three billion poor or impoverished people into energy consumers - ideally, high-efficiency, low-waste consumers, but certainly people able to have street lighting and refrigerators.
To do this without nuclear power would either be ecologically catastrophic, because it would rely on more coal-fired generation than the world has seen, or murderously inhumane, because it would raise energy prices to levels that would keep people in terrible poverty.
The world needs two things now: fewer carbon emissions, and a growing supply of energy at a low cost. By accomplishing both, nuclear power, even factoring in disasters, can save millions of lives.
Some leading environmentalists this week immediately recognized the danger of abandoning nuclear power. The British arch-Green activist George Monbiot wrote a cri de coeur on Thursday urging countries to stay with nuclear: "Even when nuclear power plants go horribly wrong, they do less damage to the planet and its people than coal-burning stations operating normally," he wrote, rightly.
"Coal, the most carbon-dense of fossil fuels, is the primary driver of human-caused climate change. If its combustion is not curtailed, it could kill millions of times more people than nuclear power plants have done so far. … Abandoning nuclear power as an option narrows our choices just when we need to be thinking as broadly as possible."
The Japanese nuclear disaster is bad: Many people could be killed, and the area immediately surrounding the plant could become uninhabitable. But it could not become a Chernobyl-style disaster, with a carbon fire spreading radiation beyond the plant's vicinity and injuring thousands. No reactors today are built that way.
On the other hand, it is a type of plant - the 1960s-era General Electric Mark 1 - that has been known since 1972 to be flawed and vulnerable to this type of disaster, and it has just been exposed to the fifth-largest earthquake in recorded history.
It shows us that nuclear plants must be better regulated and such cheap designs avoided or decommissioned, but it is hardly a condemnation of the technology. If the earthquake had burst a major dam - an event that would have killed thousands more people immediately - would the world have suddenly turned against hydroelectric generation?
More importantly, though, the Japanese moment represents a global choice, a fulcrum point in history.
We are being assaulted from three sides. First by nature, raw and unfettered, humanity's oldest and most constant enemy.
Second by our technology, gone terribly wrong and used carelessly - second only to nature as a threat to our being, as the words Auschwitz and Hiroshima ought to remind us constantly.
And third, by nature again, this time altered and distorted by our presence - an atmosphere too dense with our particles and gasses, requiring action to render it less of a threat.
That great Lisbon earthquake in 1755 taught us all a crucial lesson: We are alone in the world, without a beneficent God to protect us. Nature is not our gift from heaven but both our source of sustenance and our most pressing antagonist, and we must use our guile and devices to make nature work with us, not against us.
The 2011 earthquake repeats that lesson, but gives us a further choice: Can we prevent both nature and human inventions from harming us terribly, while using the latter to correct the distortions in the former?
We face the dual threat of nature rendering our technologies deadly and unworkable (nuclear disaster) or our technologies rendering nature menacing and hostile (climate change). The challenge of this age is to use these forces to correct the worst of each other.
It is a drama being played out in horrific microcosm on the Pacific coast of Japan this week. And it will soon be played out on a far larger stage.Report Typo/Error