We had an important piece of good news this month as Sendai Unit 1 was restarted in Japan, ending a long period of no nuclear generation in that country after the Fukushima accident in 2011. Sendai Unit 2 is following close behind and Japan will continue to restart many of its nuclear plants as it moves to put the accident behind it and reap the benefits of nuclear generation once again. Recent experience without nuclear has led the country to import vast quantities of fossil fuels, increase its carbon emissions and damage its balance of trade. While difficult for many, the Japanese understand the benefits of continuing with nuclear power are essential to the well-being of their society.
Sendai Nuclear Power Plant
Unfortunately as we have learned from this accident so far, it is fear of radiation that is having the largest impact on peoples’ health rather than the radiation itself. To date no one has died from radiation at Fukushima and no one is likely to die from radiation in the future, yet fear is what is consuming these people and their lives – and the policy decisions being taken by government.
Of course, we must always think about those that were directly impacted by the accident. Many remain out of their homes and those that are permitted to return are often afraid. We must continue to understand their plight and work together to help them get their lives back and of most importance, once again have hope for their future.
A couple of weeks ago I was watching Fareed Zakaria on CNN interview President Obama about the Iran nuclear deal. I don’t want to talk about that here but I do want to share Fareed’s thoughts on President Obama’s optimism. He suggested that Obama is an optimist and noted that “history suggests that it’s the optimists who have tended to be right”. He went on to say that “today we are awash in pessimism, with people who see the world as a dark and dangerous place, where threats are growing and enemies are gaining strength.”
It made me think of our own world of nuclear power, where we are awash in pessimism; And it is easy to be pessimistic when articles such as the one by Michael Ignatieff, (who has previously run for Prime Minister of Canada) concludes after his visit to the Fukushima area with a message that seems to be the prevailing view of nuclear power to many. “For the rest of us, outside Japan, we have moved on, more dubious about nuclear power than before, but still locked into the energy and economic system that requires it. Fukushima is now classed with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl in a trio of warning disasters, but so far none of these has persuaded the world, at least so far, to exit nuclear.” Clearly the message is – we need it for now, but when are we going to realize that the risk is just not worth the benefits?
It is easy to be pessimistic when there are documentaries that reach similar conclusions. In “Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail” by Dr. Derek Muller, a physicist by training, the two part series focused on the bomb in Episode 1 and on the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima in Episode 2. Watching one can see that positive facts are presented such as radiation is not as dangerous as people think but the series is not about the benefits of nuclear power – rather it focuses on fueling the fear.
And there is no doubt the biggest issue is fear of radiation. As stated in Mr. Ignatieff’s article, “Today, Tokyo shoppers still won’t buy rice, soya, or miso produced in the region and nobody will touch the catch from the local fishermen, even though the fish have been pronounced safe.” On his visit to the region he says “In the enclosed valleys, as our bus climbed up the winding roads towards the coast—still many miles from the nuclear plant—radiation rose to double the levels in Tokyo. We’re told it’s safe to travel to Namie but it’s still not clear what safe means.” After this accident trust is in short supply and lack of trust definitely increases the fear.
What is also clear is that setting policy based on fear does not result in good policy. In Germany, they prematurely shut down safe, effective and economic plants much earlier than needed. Even while building a huge amount of renewable generation, the Germans had to also build new coal plants both increasing electricity costs and emissions. It doesn’t take much to realize that even with a strategic goal of eliminating nuclear power, taking the time to build clean replacements and shutting the existing plants down more slowly would have worked just fine – but setting policy driven by short-term fear of radiation doesn’t allow for sensible decisions. With over 200 nuclear plants throughout Europe, nuclear power has been a safe and essential element of electricity generation for decades without a single incident of harm.
Going back to what was said by Fareed Zakaria, “history suggests that it’s the optimists who have tended to be right”, we definitely choose to be optimistic and here is why.
The world needs clean and abundant energy for a better future for us all. For those with limited or no access to a reliable source of electricity, providing this resource makes a huge positive impact in their standard of living. And while we all agree that in richer countries there is opportunity to become more energy efficient, just look how dramatically our lives are impacted if there is an outage for any sustained period of time. Nuclear energy meets that need. It provides clean, abundant, economic and reliable electricity. Its energy density is matched by none so it can provide huge quantities of electricity from very small quantities of fuel, clearly what will be needed as the world population approaches 9 billion in the years to come.
The rapidly growing economies in the world like China and India are very aware of the benefits that come with robust nuclear programs as they embrace nuclear power to support their rapid growth in energy demand. Other energy-poor countries are also eager to move forward. The 67 units under construction around the world represents the largest new build program in decades and while many (25) are being built in China, the rest are distributed in 12 different countries.
But most of all what makes us optimistic about the future are the large numbers of energetic, bright and talented young people entering the industry. This month I had the opportunity to lecture at the World Nuclear University Summer Institute in Uppsala, Sweden. The current generation of young engineers and scientists have grown up in an era where they are strongly supportive of technology and believe that anything is possible if they put their mind to it. It did not take long to see that the future of the industry is in good hands.
The time has come to get off our hind foot and stand up proudly and proclaim what we know to be true – that nuclear power has an important place in the world and will continue to expand its role as we need reliable economic and abundant energy for society. It is an essential energy option of choice, not of last resort, that we shouldn’t wish we could do without.