As usual, the Onion nails it: Nuclear Energy Advocates Insist U.S. Reactors Completely Safe Unless Something Bad Happens
Alright, I can’t resist saying more. I grew up in Europe and remember Chernobyl vividly. The nuclear fallout reached as far as northern Britain, and for months we were reminded just how risky nuclear power is. Many years later, I studied systems failures in the aerospace industry, and learned just how hard it is for humans to prevent catastrophic failure in complex socio-technical systems. No, worse: I learned that human organisations often conspire to make complex systems less safe. Or, as Nancy Leveson puts it in her book, Safeware (a must read for anyone interested in complex systems failure):
“In most of the major accidents of the past 25 years, technical information on how to prevent the accident was known, and often even implemented. But in each case… [this was] negated by organisational or managerial flaws.”
The problem isn’t a question of whether small radiation leaks are dangerous or not. And it isn’t even a question of whether, on average, coal-fired power plants emit more radiation than nuclear plants (although this infographic from xkcd helps to put it into perspective). The problem is that human organizations are just inherently too flawed to manage the safe operation of something as inherently dangerous as a nuclear fission reactor. The failings of TEPCO aren’t really news: this is how normal accidents occur.
In the last few years, I gradually became convinced to ignore my objections to nuclear power, on the basis that if we’re going to switch from fossil fuels quick enough, we have to consider everything else. The risks from nuclear power pale into insignificance compared to the risks from climate change on our current fossil-fuel-intensive path. That’s not to say the risks aren’t there. But it’s a trade off between what’s essentially a local risk to people living within a hundred km or so of a nuclear power plant (which I do), versus a global risk to pretty much everyone on the planet. But just as we don’t have a suitable global governance structure for taking appropriate action on climate change, so we also don’t have a suitable global governance structure that’s able to weigh up the risks to, and represent the interests of, different groups of communities in considering whether to build more nuclear power plants to reduce the risk of climate change.
The bottom line is that nuclear power poses the same kinds of inter-generational ethical problems that climate change does: we build nuclear power plants now to enjoy our profligate energy-intensive lifestyle, and leave future generations to cope with the costs and challenges of decommisioning, site clean up, and long term storage of waste. We don’t know how to solve these problems right now, so do we really have the right to leave them to future generations to solve?
It seems to be me that nuclear power can only be part of the solution to climate change once we demonstrate that we’ve fully pursued every other avenue for clean energy and energy conservation, and once we’ve come up with an adequate governance structure for balancing the risks to different communities. Some people make an even stronger argument, based on the economics – e.g. Amory Lovins crunches the numbers and points out that nuclear power is both unsafe and uneconomic.
And, as the Onion reminds us, it’s only safe when nothing unforeseen happens.