Just over three years ago, I listened to a talk by Dr. Patrick Moore, founding member of Greenpeace, and keynote speaker at a conference I was attending. He had since broken ranks with many of his former environmental colleagues, stating that (hindsight being 20/20) they had done too good a job campaigning against all things nuclear. What they really had a problem with was nuclear testing but they tarred nuclear energy with the same black brush. Now Moore was promoting the need to get off fossil fuels immediately and by any means necessary, including nuclear. But his campaigns in the 60s and 70s had been a little too successful.
It’s a scientific virtue to weigh new evidence and change your mind, but the public at large is not easily swayed. Nor are government officials. It was just over two years after that talk with Moore that I was watching a nuclear disaster unfold on television, the aftermath of an already horrendous natural disaster but potentially with more far-reaching consequences.
A year later, several nuclear nations are trying to decide where they fall on the nuclear issue. A number of policy items have come out just this past week.
In Japan itself, it’s just been announced that Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, will receive massive public funding, effectively being nationalized for the next 10 years. This injection of funds comes as part of a series of compensation payments for the disaster, but may also require the company to be run by outside management. The Japanese government hopes the company will become profitable again by the 2013 fiscal year. Meanwhile, the government continues to investigate safety standards nationwide, and the premier plans on going ahead with a 40-year phase-out of nuclear power in the country.
Germany has announced this week a complete phase-out in just 10 years. This is a reversal of a reversal of the original phase-out plan. In 2010, a party coalition voted to alter a previous phase-out plan, extending nuclear power usage to 2037. So it might have remained if not for the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Along with the current plan of complete phase-out by 2022, Germany has announced an intended 40% drop in carbon emissions over the same period.
Italy’s environment minister, Corrado Clini, made statements this week affirming a rejection of current nuclear technology, while simultaneously pushing for more nuclear research. Italy shut down its nuclear plants in 1987 as part of nationwide nuclear ban. In 2011, citizens voted against a motion to repeal the ban. Clini was quoted as saying “Nuclear research points towards clean energy in the medium-long term. Renewables, which we highly support and promote, are the present and the near future. I see no contradiction in this position.”
It’s not a contradiction but a reversal of the usual approach. Formerly anti-nuclear environmentalists like Dr. Moore see nuclear energy as a necessary evil, a temporary stop-gap while technology for renewables catch up, and ultimately less disastrous choice than coal. But he would probably see it as backwards to invest in nuclear energy if a country has already established a functioning renewable energy infrastructure.
Clini is likely thinking of growing energy needs, assuming increased population and industrialization. In that case, he is correct that advances in nuclear research (for example, safe and effective fusion energy) might produce a greater abundance of energy than renewables.
Fifty years from now, will we see a world of more or less widespread nuclear energy? Time will tell.
Photo credit: ja:User:Newsliner