Sunday, March 20, 2011

No Energy Pecking Order Necessary

A theme developing among a lot of writers is the notion that if some country in the world decides to abandon nuclear energy, the alternative pickings leave a lot to be desired.

But the alarm in Japan and globally belies the fact that nuclear power plants, in the approximately half a century that they have existed, have caused fewer deaths than another common source of power production: coal.

Frankly, it’s too soon for defensiveness – always too soon, really.There have been plenty of politicians who have not been shaken from their conviction that nuclear energy  has to be part of any energy policy that seeks to reduce carbon emissions - I’ve quoted quite a few of them here over the last few days - and keep up with world demand for electricity generation. On Thursday, for example, UAE broke ground on its first nuclear plant.

Coal plants pose an even larger threat than mining, however: pollution. Coal plants emit soot, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other pollutants.

The concern now should be finishing the job at Fukushima Daiichi, getting Japan back on its feet and letting Tepco and the Japanese government get to the bottom of what happened at Fukushima. All that is not going to happen tomorrow or next week or next month. 

While natural gas plants burn their fuel more cleanly than coal plants, people who live near drilling sites have complained about air and water pollution stemming from exploration.

All the other nuclear energy plants all over the world, including those in Japan not shut down by the earthquake last week, are thrumming along quite well, making electricity safely and cleanly.

That is because renewable energy, too, has downsides: The wind does not blow all the time, and wind farms can occupy substantial amounts of land. Solar power is expensive, and it does not work all the time, either. Hydroelectric dams kill fish.

The attempt to establish a pecking order for energy sources that put nuclear energy on top (or at the bottom, depending on perspective) isn’t really necessary. Not yet, likely not ever.

1 comment:

Joffan said...

"letting Tepco and the Japanese government get to the bottom of what happened at Fukushima"... I can save them a bit of time - it was a tsunami.

OK, OK - there's more to find out. There's boatloads of details to uncover and consider. Contingencies that could have been made. Designs that could have been different. International lessons that might have made a difference. Implications of, and responses to, releases (and I expect, sooner or later, a Japanese equivalent of Yablokov claiming spuriously large numbers affected).

But at bottom - unlike Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island - it was a very extreme nature event that overcame mulitple defenses. Which should not be forgotten.