One interesting thing to come out of the Japanese quake and resulting ongoing difficulties at the Fukushima nuclear plant, is the two vastly different takes on the issue of nuclear power.

Is nuclear power so dangerous, thanks to the constant risk of radiation poisoning and nuclear meltdown, that it should be completely avoided? Or does the fact that Japan — so far — has suffered few incidences of radiation, despite one of the worst natural disasters the world has ever seen, indicate that nuclear has a strong future as a clean-ish energy?

I always find it interesting how people view the exact same event and come to vastly different conclusions.

Post-Japan quake debate is raging in Canada over its own engagement with nuclear power, with calls for a plant in Quebec to be closed and another new proposed project in Ontario to be stopped.

The Toronto Sun writes: “A nuclear war is underway in Durham Region. Three environmental groups have come forward in an attempt to suspend the Darlington New Nuclear Power Plant environmental hearings in the wake of the ongoing accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station.”

The Vancouver Sun reports: “Images of Japan’s stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant have ignited Canadians’ concerns over fission power projects in their own back yard, and sparked calls to halt nuclear developments until any lessons to be learned from the quake-rocked plant become clear.”

Canadian shock jock Scott Thompson was compelled to write out against it:

“Are you comfortable knowing in Southern Ontario there are three nuclear power plants that you could drive to in half a day? A cloud floating overhead I’m sure could make the trip much quicker…. I don’t think Ontarians are worried about a tsunami. But how about a terrorist attack? It sounds far fetched but so did flying two planes into the World Trade Center almost 10 years ago.”

Similar issues are happening in California. The Washington Post reports: “State lawmakers called on California utilities Monday to delay efforts to relicense nuclear power plants until the companies complete detailed seismic maps to get a true picture of the risks posed by earthquakes and tsunamis.”

These nuclear risks simply highlight the potential of natural gas, writes Jad Mouawad at the New York Times:

“The serious problems at the nuclear power plant in Japan have raised new doubts about the safety of nuclear energy. New exploration has yet to resume in the Gulf of Mexico after last year’s blowout of a BP oil well. And coal plants have been under a shadow because of their contribution to global warming. Meanwhile, natural gas has overcome two of its biggest hurdles — volatile prices and questionable supplies.”

Or, does the earthquake and tsunami actually prove that nuclear power is a safe and effective type of low-emission power?

One article in particular caught my eye, by climate change activist and writer George Monbiot. Monbiot is someone who has regularly discussed nuclear power and his own personal issues to it, but has usually said he only supports nuclear power in very particular circumstances  — such as specific instructions on dealing with the waste and banning any possible military use. But the Japan earthquake and Fukushima nuclear plant issues that followed have only further added to his growing support for nuclear power, he writes in The Guardian:

You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.

Some greens have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution. For a clearer view, look at the graphic published by xkcd.com. It shows that the average total dose from the Three Mile Island disaster for someone living within 10 miles of the plant was one 625th of the maximum yearly amount permitted for US radiation workers. This, in turn, is half of the lowest one-year dose clearly linked to an increased cancer risk, which, in its turn, is one 80th of an invariably fatal exposure. I’m not proposing complacency here. I am proposing perspective.

If other forms of energy production caused no damage, these impacts would weigh more heavily. But energy is like medicine: if there are no side-effects, the chances are that it doesn’t work.

Has Japan made you change your mind on nuclear power?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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