Two years ago, on March 11, 2011, a massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake sent a 14-metre tsunami crashing into a nuclear power station. Fukushima, the site of the station, became a household name. The result was a disaster: loss of life, release of deadly radiation into the environment and — worst of all — skyrocketing anti-nuclear sentiment across the globe.
I know how that sounds, but I am quite serious. Although more than 15 000 people died as a result of the earthquake and tsunami, not a single person died as a result of direct exposure to radiation. And the World Health Organization recently released a report which, according to the press release, concluded that while children exposed to the most contaminated area of Fukushima were at a slightly higher risk of certain types of cancer, “for the general population inside and outside of Japan . . . no observable increases in cancer rates . . . are anticipated” as a result of the accident.
That may seem incredible to you, considering that here on the West Coast — 8 000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean — the disaster caused near-panic. Sales of potassium iodide pills (which can protect against thyroid cancer) and Geiger counters went through the roof. My mother called me from Tofino looking for reassurance. And a friend of mine, along with her husband and baby boy, moved to South America for fear of the radiation.
The rest of the world was worried, too: a poll conducted by the BBC soon after the accident suggested that enthusiasm for nuclear power had plummeted. This caused prudent politicians to announce that they were reassessing or scaling down their country’s nuclear industries — Germany, for example, announced plans to be nuclear-free by 2022. And this, in turn, caused the International Energy Agency to cut its estimate of how much nuclear power the world will be generating by 2035 in half.
And what do you think will make up this shortfall? No prizes for the correct answer: hydro is already approaching its apogee, and alternatives like wind and solar are, unfortunately, not yet up to the task. Almost certainly it will be coal, gas and oil. And this is the real disaster.
This is not to imply that nuclear power is perfect: it’s not even close. Even in the best of times, it’s not environmentally inconsequential. It creates radioactive waste. It can help mask clandestine nuclear weapons production. And the risk of accidents like those of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima cannot be discounted.
But however bad nuclear power is, it beats the pants off fossil fuels, which are a major cause of particulate air pollution that, according to one estimate, kills 50 000–100 000 Americans every year via lung cancer and cardiopulmonary diseases. Not to mention climate change, ocean acidification, oil spills and the risk of conflicts over control of dwindling resources.
Surely anything is better than this. Nuclear is simply the most realistic alternative at hand. This realization may well be counter-intuitive. But if the tragic tale of Fukushima has a moral, it is that our intuitions cannot be counted on to weigh the risks of sudden, dramatic accidents against the inexorable, creeping advance of something much, much worse.