Nuclear Power After Fukushima: Not a Choice but a Necessity

The ongoing crisis at the nuclear power station in Fukushima has persuaded many people that nuclear power has no future. Tokyo-based writer, broadcaster, and commentator Andrew Horvat argues that nuclear power remains safer and more environmentally friendly than the alternatives.

The ongoing crisis at the nuclear power station in Fukushima has persuaded many people that nuclear power has no future. Tokyo-based writer, broadcaster, and commentator Andrew Horvat argues that nuclear power remains safer and more environmentally friendly than the alternatives.

Conventional wisdom has it that the long-running and so far unsuccessful struggle to stabilize four tsunami-damaged nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant will inevitably lead to a downgrading of nuclear energy as a source of electric power around the world.

Not very likely. Risky as they may appear to be, nuclear power plants offer the only viable means for humanity to achieve the dual goal of controlling climate-altering CO2 emissions while generating the electric power necessary to raise the living standards of billions of the world’s poor.

Voters in wealthy industrialized countries are deluding themselves if they think that humanity has a choice about using nuclear energy. Of course, if we assume that rich countries will remain rich and the poor always poor, then perhaps we might be able to get away with burning fossil fuels forever. But since even people in rich countries want to live better every year, our own greed will force us to seek alternatives that satisfy our ever increasing appetite for electric power. And since we have no wish to suffocate ourselves while we bask in luxury, we will choose an option that does not trigger further climate change.

That means we will have to stop burning coal, oil or even natural gas since all of these release CO2 into the atmosphere in varying amounts. Biofuels have served just one purpose so far – to make us rich aware of just how selfish we are. We were quite ready to take away farmland from the poor in order to grow politically correct crops so we could feel good while we topped up the tanks of our SUVs.

As for alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power, these are commendable in their own way and can no doubt help reduce the need for thermal power. But they are not a viable option for countries such as India or China, where the choice is between another hundred cheap and polluting coal-fired power plants or a site consisting of half a dozen 1,300 megawatt nuclear power stations.

While German voters can feel good about having elected local governments that have vowed to say goodbye to nuclear energy, India and China between them have plans to open 40 new nuclear power plants. Of course, one could argue that the choices faced by developing countries are different, that human life among the poor counts for less, and that governments in poor countries can therefore opt for more dangerous sources of energy than in advanced countries. But such an argument is as false as it is condescending.

Fears about radiation leakage as a result of accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima notwithstanding, nuclear power is the most humanitarian option for governments of developing and developed countries alike.

Allow me here to recall a personal experience. In 1983 I covered the opening of the Canadian-built heavy water Candu nuclear power plant in Wolsung, South Korea. Walking around Seoul with one of the Canadian engineers who had designed the plant, I stubbed my toe on a badly laid portion of the sidewalk. I argued that a country that cannot even make sidewalks properly lacked the technical expertise needed to run a sophisticated power plant. The engineer disagreed: “Say the operators do make a mistake and release radiation into the atmosphere. As a result, cancer rates in the vicinity rise by a fraction of a percent. But what if we do not build this 600 megawatt reactor and people do not have access to modern hospital care? What about the thousands of Koreans who will die from carbon monoxide poisoning because they will continue to use dangerous coal briquettes during the winter instead of electricity to heat their homes?”

As I write this column, workers at Fukushima are struggling to stabilize the four reactors. They do this at great personal risk to themselves, given the dangers of exposure to radiation in large doses. At Chernobyl, 50 firefighters died from radiation exposure—31 within a month of the accident, the remaining 19 later.

Of course, at Fukushima, workers face nothing like the radiation levels at Chernobyl. Although no one died at Three Mile Island, the event is still commonly referred to as a disaster. The two deaths reported at Fukushima were of workers on duty at the time of the earthquake and tsunami. It is assumed that they died from causes other than radiation exposure since radiation only rose to dangerous levels several hours after the tsunami knocked out the power to cool the nuclear fuel.

Foreign residents have headed for airports, fearing the effects of exposure to the low levels of radiation reaching the Tokyo area. Multinational corporations, faced with loss of insurance coverage and risk of lawsuits, ordered executives and families either to return to home base or else seek refuge in a neighboring country. However, there is considerable debate about the long-term effects of increased exposure to low-level radiation. A rise in the number of children with thyroid cancer near Chernobyl has been linked conclusively to the ingestion of milk contaminated with I-131, a radioactive substance released by the damaged reactor. As a result, milk produced near the Fukushima reactor is being dumped. Antinuclear activists insist that cancer rates also rose around Three Mile Island but such claims have yet to be proven conclusively. According to a UN report, comparisons of cancer rates at Chernobyl before and after the accident are problematic because monitoring is much more advanced today than before 1986 and cancers are identified today that would not have been detected in the past. Such explanations, of course, do not convince opponents of nuclear power.

One thing, however, is beyond dispute. In 1972, my wife, who was born in South Korea, lost her aunt to carbon monoxide poisoning from a coal briquette. It was 11 years before the commissioning of the Wolsung Candu nuclear power station. Today, Korea relies on nuclear power to generate 40 percent of its electricity. If Koreans today have a higher incidence of cancer, it is because thanks to rapid industrialization, they live long enough to contract diseases associated with old age. (Written on April 11.)

Andrew Horvat

Andrew Horvat

A Japan-based journalist who has worked as a correspondent for the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, and the Independent of London. As Japan representative of the Asia Foundation from 1999 to 2005, initiated a series of public policy forums on unresolved historical problems between Japan and its neighbors that led to the publication of Sharing the Burden of the Past: Legacies of War in Europe, America and Asia. Author and translator of nine books, including Japanese Beyond Words and Kaikoku no susume (Open Up, Japan!).