Japan's nuclear crisis is bad enough without this rush to judgement

15 Mar 2011, 14:29

The greatest blessing and curse bequeathed by the emergence of the internet is a level of immediacy that would have been unimaginable event a decade ago. Our web-enabled lives allow us to access news and information at breakneck pace, providing us with an up-to-the-second insight into anything that catches our interest. But they also create a monster that must be constantly fed, placing irresistible pressure on politicians, business leaders and the commentariat to deliver a clear, concise and consistent interpretation of events even as they are still on-going.

Sometimes this immediacy is to be welcomed, certain events benefit from snap judgments and rapid responses. But there are countless other incidents where the best course of action is to take a deep breath, wait for events to play out, and then dedicate real time and resources to understanding their implications and learning their lessons. The ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan is one such event.

The crisis, which at the time of writing could still result in a catastrophic meltdown and radiation leaks, has sparked an avalanche of commentary from politicians, analysts and journalists about the likely impact on the nuclear new-build programmes being pursued by many of the world's largest economies.

Even as engineers battle to bring the over-heating fuel rods back under control, the UK has launched a review into the lessons that can be learned from Fukushima, US senators have issued calls for a temporary moratorium on new nuclear plants, South Korea and India are considering delaying nuclear plans, and in a shock move the German government has said it will close seven nuclear power plants built before 1980 for at least three months.

Meanwhile, the anti-nuclear lobby has mobilised, dusting off perennial warnings about nuclear power's inherent risks. They are right of course, even if some of the comments have an undertone of "I told you so" schadenfreude. Does it really help anyone's cause to point out at this early stage in proceedings that renewable energy technologies do not result in radiation leaks or predict that the Fukushima incident rings the death knell for all planned nuclear projects everywhere, ever?

These reactions are understandable. No one wants to be seen to be cheering for nuclear power while tens of thousands of people are being evacuated from their homes amid fears of radiation poisoning. In the case of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her insistence that the Japanese nuclear crisis represents "a critical moment for the world", there is also the perfect political opportunity for an under-fire leader to curry favour with a largely anti-nuclear electorate.

However, if these reactions are to be expected they also risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy where the narrative of an entire nuclear industry stopped in its tracks becomes entrenched, regardless of whether more considered analysis eventually results in a different conclusion.

The problem for the low carbon economy is that, rightly or wrongly, many of the world's largest and most polluting economies have made nuclear a central component of their low carbon development plans. The US, China, the UK, India, France, and Japan are all at various stages with energy policies that would result in hundreds of new nuclear reactors. Meanwhile, clean tech investors and energy companies are ploughing millions into plans for new plants and research on cleaner and safer reactors. It is also worth noting that wider green economic plans rest on the foundations provided by a low carbon energy mix. For example, without reliable sources of low carbon energy the green credentials of proposed electric car fleets or high-speed rail networks become highly questionable.

If Fukushima does result in an early end to the nuclear renaissance or even just a delay to current plans for new reactors, then governments and businesses will have to rapidly develop new low carbon energy strategies that deliver clean and reliable energy supplies without recourse to nuclear. It is instructive that the immediate response from the carbon market to the German decision to temporarily close seven of its nuclear power plants has been a spike in the price of carbon as traders draw the obvious conclusion that the only way to cover the surprise shortfall in energy supply is to increase output from coal and gas-fired plants. As one analyst put it to me, "in the short to medium term, emissions will go up – we can't build renewables that quick".

It is similarly instructive to consider that the only reason many countries are continuing to operate 40-year-old nuclear power plants like that in Fukushima is because governments have singularly failed to finalise the strategies that would have delivered a new low carbon energy mix to replace them.

I am no apologist for nuclear power. As an environmentalist I would happily see an end to nuclear power on the grounds that the technology is hugely costly and inherently dangerous regardless of how many safeguards you put in place. However, there are reasons why nuclear power has emerged as a crucial component in so many nations' low carbon plans, and they are not all due to the influence of the nuclear lobby. Nuclear remains one of the few technologies available that can deliver large quantities of base load power without resulting in greenhouse gas emissions. Studies have shown you can deliver a reliable low carbon energy mix that is reliant on renewables and avoids nuclear, but it is likely to be harder to deliver than the nuclear, renewable, carbon capture and storage (CCS) energy mix approach that many countries are now pursuing (as an aside, in a straight choice between nuclear and unproven CCS systems I'd take nuclear every time).

In the wake of recent events it is easy to predict the death of the nuclear industry and call for a new low carbon strategy, and this could yet happen if the worst occurs and the on-going crisis in Japan develops into a full-blown nuclear catastrophe. Equally, it is easy for nuclear advocates to argue Fukushima is an exceptional case and predict that safer modern reactors will remain a viable source of low carbon energy. But regardless of what happens in the coming weeks and months, the world has to ensure greenhouse gas emissions peak within the next decade and any shift in global energy policies that results from the disaster in Japan must comply with this environmental imperative. The knee jerk response from both the pro and anti-nuclear camps will make it all the harder for world leaders to develop a balanced and effective energy strategy, and as such risks a scenario where cancelled or delayed nuclear projects are not replaced quickly enough by low carbon alternatives. There is a very real fear  that the end of the nuclear renaissance could lead to a renaissance in coal and gas power; the nuclear crisis could begat the climate crisis.

Important decisions will now have to be made about the future of nuclear power, but it serves no one to make those decisions while the fuel rods are still hot.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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