Practically alone among nations, the people of Japan know firsthand the terrible consequences of splitting the atom. As they grieve the thousands dead and the destroyed communities from another, natural, disaster, there are new concerns about nuclear energy - this time, from explosions and partial meltdowns at two of Japan's nuclear power stations after Friday's earthquake and tsunami. The situation at the Fukushima reactors is serious, even dire, but it ought not to sound the death knell of nuclear power, or delay the construction of new nuclear facilities.
With little hydroelectric capacity, depleted coal reserves, a still nascent wind and solar industry, a small land area and considerable energy needs, nuclear power makes a lot of sense for Japan. It can usually deliver on its promise of affordable, emissions-light energy to power 25 to 30 per cent of Japan's electricity needs.
No energy source is perfect, and today it is easy to forget that extracting energy from other sources is demonstrably dangerous in the short run (witness the worldwide death toll, in the thousands annually, from explosions in coal mines and at oil and gas facilities), and, due to global warming exacerbated by the burning of fossil fuels, in the long run.
Even at Fukushima, Japan's structural engineering skill was on display; it was the tsunami, and not the earthquake, that caused the most damage. But two critical planning oversights - the failure to provide for sufficient back-up power on- and off-site, and the placing of back-up power too close to the shoreline - appear to have contributed to the partial meltdown. Human error, in combination with the rare extremity of Friday's events, is causing Japan's nuclear crisis.
But it is important to note that, so far, nothing has happened that could not have been predicted. There are few "unknown unknowns" or unforeseeable risks; indeed, we know the deadly, pervasive risk of the spread of radioactive material, and that awareness is driving the massive containment effort. We just need to account for those risks better.
So rather than forsake nuclear power altogether, all nuclear nations should re-evaluate the risks most germane to their facilities. The situation in Japan is still terrifying and fluid. But it is a good time to recognize that nuclear power is neither a saviour nor an anathema, as proclaimed by competing evangelists. It is a necessary energy source, though not without great risks - and those risks come from both natural and human sources.Report Typo/Error
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