It's been interesting to see the media response to the third anniversary of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Has the focus been on mourning and commemorating the 18,000 deaths or on kicking the anti-nuclear can over the triple meltdown at Fukushima which killed nobody?
Jim Green's recent Climate Spectator article neglected any mention of the 18,000 deaths caused by the quake and tsunami and chose instead to fiercely debate whether the meltdowns had killed anybody. Of the 18,000 actual deaths, many were due to engineers or penny pinching local officials designing or building protective sea walls for a much smaller tsunami than the one which actually arrived. They were wrong and thousands died. Green is predictably silent about these engineering failures which killed thousands and only has eyes for the nuclear failures which didn't.
This is classic Green. Always trying distract people from thinking about the big issue. The big issue is climate change and whether nuclear power should be part of the global response. The way to come to a rational decision is to weigh up the pros and cons.
Pick a number from Green's estimates of the number of cancers that might be caused over the next 30 years by Fukushima radiation and write it down as a con along with whatever figure you'd like to put down for the Chernobyl toll of premature deaths. On the other side you should note the 1.8 million premature deaths already prevented by nuclear power by reducing the toxic pollution from coal fired power plants. You should also write down about 64 gigatonnes of CO2 saved by current nuclear plants.
At that point, it's pretty much a slam dunk, you could stop writing. Any negative impacts of nuclear power have been swamped by the positive impacts.
But it's useful to build another list of pros and cons which represent the impacts of the anti-nuclear movement over the past few decades.
On the pro side of the ledger will be the accidents we didn't have because we built coal power stations instead of nuclear. Until very recently, the anti-nuclear movement has protested any nuclear construction vigorously and been totally silent about coal, so this is a fair comparison.
So what if we had continued the nuclear rollout of the 1970s and now had 10 times as many reactors producing all of our electricity? We'd have had a few more accidents, how many? Let's say 10. So write down however many premature deaths you think is reasonable on the pro side and now on the other side write down the saving of 18 million premature fossil fuel related deaths together with the saving of 640 gigatonnes of CO2. Note that this anti-nuclear consequence of some 640 gigatonnes of CO2 has single handedly delivered us into the gaping jaws of a horribly elevated risk of dangerous climate change. What do you write down for that?
But let's go back to that 1.8 million premature death saving estimate. The authors were NASA climate scientists Pushker Kharecha and living legend James Hansen. It was a very conservative estimate. In places like China and India, nuclear has been displacing not just coal, but wood fires in people's living areas. Wood cooking stoves annually kill about half a million children under 5 years of age with an added illness toll much larger. Hansen has recently written an opinion piece with the striking title of 'World's Greatest Crime against Humanity and Nature'.
What's he talking about?
Hansen wants the US to assist China with its nuclear rollout because he thinks it's blindingly obvious that without nuclear, there is simply no way to avoid dangerous climate change. As part of the argument Hansen charges those who believe in a non-nuclear 100 percent renewable response to climate change with the major responsibility for the rise of both gas fracking and the exploitation of tar sands and other onconventional oil technologies. This is supported by falling natural gas production during the US nuclear roll and the subsequent resurgence after the anti-nuclear movement got spurred on by the Three Mile Island meltdown and Chernobyl.
But we suspect Hansen may be wrong about one thing ... which is that given the astonishing Chinese progress in nuclear technology in recent years, we'd be thinking that it might be the US who need Chinese production engineering assistance, but that's another issue.
Geoff Russell is an author with qualifications in mathematics and philosophy. Barry Brook is an environmental scientist and director of climate science at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute.