Nuclear energy after the Fukushima Daichi disaster

The two sides of nuclear power.

I get infuriated, especially when I see people who champion reason and the merits of science and skepticism give into irrational and misinformed fears. One of my acquaintances on Facebook, which I really liked for posting all sorts of interesting science stories and stimulating debate on controversial issues, just fell into an “I told you so” moment after seeing Michio Kaku talk on CNN about the state of the Fukushima Daichi power plant 3 months after the meltdown of reactors 1, 2 and 3.

Well, let me say first that what Kaku says during the interview is mostly accurate. However, there is a number of things he says that makes parts of my brain spontaneously combust. How can I pretend to know more about the Fukushima disaster than a renown Japanese physicist? Well, I can’t, but the people at IEEE can. IEEE spectrum released in November a special edition covering pretty much everything we know to this date about the Fukushima Daichi incident. The 24 hour report is especially worth reading. One reason Kaku ruined my temper is this chart, comparing the Three Miles Island and the Tchernobyl incidents to Fukushima.

But this isn’t why I am most displeased with this public appearance by Kaku. First, he lacks a lot of respect for the exposed workers and the decision-makers who had to deal with an impossible scenario. Yes, the mistakes they made should be pointed out, but that is no reason to be condescending. The 24 hour report is clear. I don’t think Kaku would have been able to prevent disaster if he had been making the decisions instead. These decisions were based on very little available information due to the large number of monitoring systems that were down. Kaku wouldn’t have had access to this information either.

Also, at the end of the 5 minute interview, Kaku talks about the trace radiation that can be picked up even in New York’s milk. If he wanted to make a dramatic point, he couldn’t have picked better. The interviewer replied that it is frightening that we can see it in the milk, and Kaku replied “that’s right”. That’s right. It is utterly irresponsible from his part not to mention that the little iodine peak that is seen in milk represents no danger at all. He doesn’t explain the science behind it. In particular, he doesn’t explain how easy it is to detect infinitesimal amounts of radio-active material. This is exactly how position emission tomography or PET scans work.

To be fair, he does say that the amount detected is very small, and the interviewer didn’t really give him the time to come up with a better response, but Michio Kaku has always been into emotional appeal. That makes him a very charismatic person, but it also makes him sacrifice essential information for drama. He’s also known to talk about topics authoritatively even if he doesn’t know them very well.

I was expecting this from Kaku. I wasn’t expecting my otherwise rational acquaintance on Facebook to fall for the fear-mongering. This is my rant against building strong opinions on hot air. Nuclear energy has a long history of facing that kind of opinions, and the Fukushima disaster has been like an injection of caffeine straight into the veins of that unstoppable beast.

Don’t get me wrong. Nuclear energy is an industry that is pretty far from perfect. It is an energy technology like any other. It has negative impacts on the environment, it has a death toll and it has engineering problems. However, quantitatively speaking, its impact on the environment is small compared to the climate change inducing fossil fuels, and it also has a relatively small number of casualties compared to fossil fuels and hydroelectric power. Here is a very informative comparison between the dangers of different energy sources. It is also one of the most impressive engineering feat that I had the chance to study, with a bewildering, although not always sufficient, number of safety features.

So here is the problem. We have a sword of Damocles called global warming looming over our heads. We know that the burning fossil fuels is the major cause behind it. We have a society that needs tremendous amounts of energy to function. The alternatives to fossil fuels are many, but few of them are technologically mature and/or practical and/or inexpensive. One that is is nuclear power. If we forsake nuclear power this early, we will face almost insurmountable economic and technological challenges, like Germany committed itself to face.

Energy technologies could be developed faster, if more money was invested in fundamental and applied sciences. But of course, that’s not an option because we don’t understand science and things we don’t understand are freakin’ scary… We just don’t trust science. We are left with the impression that scientists are behind horrors such as nuclear bombs, neutron bombs, chemical weapons and even the idea of superior races. Yes, scientists are responsible for the technical development of such things, but there is always a political actor instigating that kind of research.

I have nothing against getting rid of nuclear energy if we have better alternatives. But for now, nuclear energy is part of the answer to global warming whether you like it or not. It is also a big, big part of the world current energy output. You cannot just abandon or demolish all nuclear power plants: the impact on the economy could be measured in dozens of Wall Streets. (Yep, that’s a unit I just made up. One Wall Street = one 2008 crash) What you want instead is to make sure that all these plants lying around are satisfying strict controls, that safety procedures are duly observed and that maintenance is done carefully with enough funding.

We will get rid of nuclear energy eventually, but probably not in our lifetimes. It is of no use going around demonizing nuclear energy: we are stuck with it. At least, we are stuck with it as long as the widespread anti-science sentiment continues to negatively impact the funding of research in substitute energy technologies. The moment you accept this fact, take the occasion to learn more facts about nuclear energy. Maybe that will help alleviate your fear.

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