It’s been 10 years since the Fukushima disaster. On 11 March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami struck eastern Japan, triggering an emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Core meltdowns occurred in several reactor blocks and a large amount of radiation was released, contaminating the air, water, soil and food in the area.
For many Europeans, the Fukushima nuclear disaster once again raised the question of whether the risks associated with nuclear power were justified. Hundreds of thousands of people across the continent protested on the streets against the use of nuclear power. As a result, several countries, including Germany and Italy, decided to phase out nuclear energy.
Ten years on, however, the nuclear phase-out is being reassessed. Energy that was previously generated by nuclear power must now be produced in different ways and, compared to burning coal, nuclear power produces much lower greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the risks, is nuclear energy justified because it’s more climate-friendly?
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Wasim, who argues it’s clear that the risks of nuclear energy will always be too great to justify any benefits. Is he right?
We put Wasim’s comment to MEP Thomas Waitz, an Austrian organic farmer and forester who sits with the European Green Group in the European Parliament. How would he respond?
I would agree, yes. We are dealing with a technology that, when it has an accident – and I know that rarely happens – but always when it does, wreaks huge havoc. It has a huge impact on human life, it costs human life, but it also has a huge impact on nature. And, as an example, we have just seen the situation in Croatia: you have a nuclear power plant together with Slovenia and only recently we had a massive earthquake there with a strength of more than 6.3 on the Richter scale. And we had another earthquake two years ago, in which you can still see the damage in Zagreb. So, it’s basically a game of human life and the massive negative impact on the environment. Especially when operating nuclear power plants on seismic fault lines, as in this case.
For another perspective, we also put Wasim’s comment to Michael Shellenberger, founder and president of the pro-nuclear campaign organisation Environmental Progress and author of Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. What would he say?
When I was a kid, I was very scared of nuclear energy. I associated them with nuclear weapons; I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s and was very scared of them. And it wasn’t until I started looking into climate change and tried to expand solar and wind power that I realised we need nuclear energy to tackle problems like climate change. So, I changed my mind about nuclear power and had to overcome a lot of myths and superstitions that people have. The largest of these concerns the accidents.
Looking at the accidents, the main damage they caused is the fear and the panic. Shockingly few people died. I wrote about that in my new book “Apocalypse Never” – a total of around 200 people died from Chernobyl, and no one died from Three Mile Island or Fukushima. Nuclear waste is the best kind of garbage because it doesn’t hurt anyone. The fears about it are really fears about nuclear weapons and we are not getting rid of them, we have known that for 75 years. So, we have this really powerful technology, and I think a growing number of us climate scientists and environmentalists agree that we should use it for its highest purpose, which is to generate clean electricity. So, I think that when people look at the facts about nuclear power, they will overcome their fears, just as I and so many other people have done.
Next up, Maria sent us a comment saying she sees clear advantages in nuclear energy. She argues that nuclear energy is just as clean as renewable energy, but it is much more reliable. How would Green MEP Thomas Waitz respond?
Well, I don’t know if it’s more reliable. There are all sorts of problems with uranium; where it is produced and the amount of uranium available. I don’t know if a technology can be called ‘reliable’ that uses uranium directly and is also linked to producing material for atomic bombs. Well, you can count on the havoc atomic bombs cause wherever they are dropped . Anyway, the construction of nuclear power plants also causes quite a bit of CO2 emissions.
If you only looked at the issue from the perspective of CO2 emissions, nuclear might appear to be a kind of ‘clean energy’. However, given the bigger picture and the dangers we were talking about – but also the absolutely unsolved question of long-term nuclear waste storage – I wouldn’t say that this is a reliable technology until these issues are resolved. And, yes, the actual energy that comes from a nuclear power plant may paint a slightly better picture than fossil fuels, but when you factor in the huge amounts of steam that nuclear power plants produce, it also has a negative impact on the climate. So, it may look greener than fossil fuels, but it doesn’t compare to renewable energy at all. When a wind turbine is at the end of its life, you can simply reuse the steel, copper and other materials. But you know what happens to a nuclear power plant at the end of its life? It’s just 10,000 tons of nuclear waste that nobody knows what to do with.
Finally, what does Michael Shellenberger think? Is nuclear power cleaner and more reliable than renewable energy?
All over the world, including California, Germany, the UK, Australia, and Texas, people are struggling with a lot of unreliable solar and wind power. They only generate electricity, as everyone knows, when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, which most of the time doesn’t happen. The times we need these technologies are often when it’s really hot or really cold. When it’s very hot it means there’s no wind, and when it’s very cold, which is what we saw in Texas, the wind turbines are frozen.
When we first used nuclear technology 50 years ago, plants ran only about 55% of the time. Today, nuclear power plants in the United States run 92% of the time. They are the most reliable source of power and that is really important. Because the truth is, all of this wealth that we enjoy: our hospitals, our schools, our clinics, our streets, our houses, are powered by electricity, which must be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Only nuclear energy can do this, and do it in a way that solar, wind and other renewable energies cannot.
Do the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the risks? Is nuclear energy more reliable than renewable energies? Can we win the fight against climate change without nuclear? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!