Gwynne Dyer: Nuclear power debate amid Japan crisis ruled by superstition

Suppose that a giant hydro dam had crumbled under the impact of the biggest earthquake in a century and sent a wave of water racing down some valley in northern Japan. Imagine that whole villages and towns had been swept away, and that 10,000 people were killed—an even worse death toll than that caused by the tsunami that hit the coastal towns.

Would there be a great outcry worldwide, demanding that reservoirs be drained and hydro dams shut down? Of course not. Do you think we are superstitious savages? We are educated, civilized people, and we understand the way that risk works.

Okay, another thought experiment. Suppose that three big nuclear power reactors were damaged in that same monster earthquake, leading to concerns about a meltdown and a massive release of radiation—a new Chernobyl. Everybody within a 20-kilometre radius of the plant was evacuated, but in the end there were only minor leakages of radiation, and nobody was killed.

Well, that was a pretty convincing demonstration of the safety of nuclear power, wasn’t it? Well, wasn’t it? You there in the loincloth, with the bone through your nose. Why are you looking so frightened? Is something wrong?

In Germany, tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated against nuclear power last Saturday (March 12), and Chancellor Angela Merkel suspended her policy of extending the life of the country’s nuclear power stations until 2036. She conceded that, following events in Japan, it was not possible to “go back to business as usual”, meaning that she may return to the original plan to close down all 17 of Germany’s nuclear power plants by 2020.

In Britain, energy secretary Chris Huhne took a more measured approach: “As Europe seeks to remove carbon based fuels from its economy, there is a long term debate about finding the right mix between nuclear energy and energy generated from renewable sources....The events of the last few days haven’t done the nuclear industry any favours.” I wouldn’t invest in the promised new generation of nuclear power plants in Britain either.

And in the United States, Congressmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey (Democratic), who cosponsored the 2009 climate bill, called for hearings into the safety and preparedness of America’s nuclear plants, 23 of which have similar designs to the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.

The alleged “nuclear renaissance” of the past few years was always a bit of a mirage so far as the West was concerned. China and India have big plans for nuclear energy, with dozens of reactors under construction and many more planned. In the United States, by contrast, there was no realistic expectation that more than four to six new reactors would be built in the next decade even before the current excitements.

The objections to a wider use of nuclear power in the United States are mostly rational. Safety worries are a much smaller obstacle than concerns about cost and time: nuclear plants are enormously expensive, and they take the better part of a decade to license and build. Huge cost overruns are normal, and government aid, in the form of loan guarantees and insurance coverage for catastrophic accidents, is almost always necessary.

The cost of wind and solar power is steadily dropping, and the price of natural gas, the least noxious fossil-fuel alternative to nuclear power, has been in free fall. There is no need for a public debate in the United States on the desirability of more nuclear power: just let the market decide. In Europe, however, there is a real debate, and the wrong side is winning it.

The European debate has focussed on shutting down existing nuclear generating capacity, not installing more of it. The German and Swedish governments may be forced by public opinion to revive the former policy of phasing out all their nuclear power plants in the near future, even though that means postponing the shut-down of highly polluting coal-fired power plants. Other European governments face similar pressures.

It’s a bad bargain. Hundreds of miners die every year digging the coal out of the ground, and hundreds of thousands of other people die annually from respiratory diseases caused by the pollution created by burning it. In the long run, hundreds of millions may die from the global warming that is driven in large part by greenhouse emissions from coal-fired power plants. Yet people worry more about nuclear power.

It’s the same sort of mistaken assessment of risk that caused millions of Americans to drive long distances instead of flying in the months just after 9/11. There were several thousand excess road deaths, while nobody died in the airplanes that had been avoided as too dangerous. Risks should be assessed rationally, not emotionally.

And here’s the funny thing. So long as the problems at Fukushima Daiichi do not kill large numbers of people, the Japanese will not turn against nuclear power, which currently provides over 30 percent of their electricity and is scheduled to expand to 40 percent. Their islands get hit by more big earthquakes than anywhere else on Earth, and the typhoons roar in regularly off the Pacific. They understand about risk.

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, Crawling from the Wreckage, was published recently in Canada by Random House.




Mar 17, 2011 at 12:35pm

A commenter on a different forum put it beautifully:

"Nuclear power plants can cause huge damage when they go wrong.
Fossil fuel power plants cause huge damage when they go right."

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Mark Fornataro

Mar 17, 2011 at 1:51pm
Hanford is too close for comfort,is in an earthquake zone(see above link)and I believe Dr Helen Caldicott is more informed on this that Gwynne Dyer.Also he has not addressed the problem of disposing nuclear waste,nor of terrorists flying planes into reactors, nor the nuclear bomb making material the reactors produce in plutonium.

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Mar 17, 2011 at 3:50pm

The real issue is growth----yes, if the world keeps on growing, we will have to make a hard choice between nuclear or fossil fuels.

But if we abandon our belief that endless growth is a good thing, and instead embrace Dr. James Lovelock's philosophy of "sustainable retreat" then we can scale back our societies to the point where renewable sources can satisfy all our needs with no resort to fossil fuels or nuclear power.

That should be the long-term goal.

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Mar 17, 2011 at 10:29pm

Gwynn needs to update his research.

AECL has completed 8 new Candu reactor installations over the last twenty years all on time in 4 years and on budget at $2B/Gw. The last one was completed in 2007 in Europe. Best record in the world for any reactor manufacturer.

So the cheapest energy available and less time to build than a coal plant.. Not one cost overruns

Helen Caldicott will live forever in infamy as one the very few principals in the deaths of almost a hundred million people worldwide when her group allied with coal and oil interests shut down nuclear power in the seventies. If it wasn't for her and her kind there wouldn't be global warming.

Planes that fly into reactors disintegrate. View the tests online.

Nuclear power reactor plutonium cannot be used to make nuke weapons. Wrong isotope.

All the worlds nuclear waste now perfectly contained would fill 1% the volume of the Great Pyramid at Giza which has lasted 5000 years - less than a football field buried 40 feet deep. Not waste. It is fuel enough to power the world for hundreds of years while being destroyed in gen IV reactors like India's new 500 MW first of 5 units. Ironically that is the only way to get rid of it. The tiny amount left is such a low level it can be returned to the mine shaft.

Conservation can provide very little of the worlds energy needs with an entire third world which can't wait to use energy like we do.

The damage in these ancient reactors was caused by payoffs to regulatory officials to allow the owner to save a buck or two putting the backup generators in the basement not by the quake. Human error not the tsunami.

Modern units have passive cooling systems which would avoid these problems.


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Dave Evans

Mar 18, 2011 at 8:47am

Sorry but you went astray when you started with the AGW stuff. Otherwise I agree. Nuclear is a good way forward.


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Jordan Rieger

Mar 18, 2011 at 12:14pm

An objective survey of the technology used in responsible nuclear power generation shows that it is often the best choice.

Dyer's amusement with how we perceive risk reminds me of Bruce Schneier, another very smart independent quasi-journalist/academic. Here's one of his essays on this topic:

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@ Gwynne Dyer

Mar 18, 2011 at 12:38pm

There are accidents at uranium mines, too. Aren’t there? Yes, there are. Nuclear power unlike conventional power cannot be controlled (turned off) if cooling is lost or haven't you noticed? Radioactive fallout may make a large area around the Fukushima reactor uninhabitable. About 500,000 people are displaced and in extreme anxiety over the uncertainty of their future. Come on Gwynne, don't be a fool. Only fools don't know when they have bitten off more than they can chew. Nuclear power is for fools or psychopaths who run the nuclear industry and who only care about keeping nuclear alive to profit.

If you believe that all the fuss about the nuclear radioactive fallout is just paranoia, I’m sure that the people who are giving up their lives to cool the nuclear reactors, could use a break, how about catching a flight to Japan to hold the water hose to give them some relief? How about the CEO of Bruce Power who is content to let people die to keep the nuclear industry alive? Can’t the CEO of Bruce Power help in a meaningful way by sacrificing his life to save the innocent people who are in peril? How about you Seth?

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virgil hammer

Mar 18, 2011 at 12:59pm

Astuteobserver wrote "sustainable retreat" then we can scale back our societies to the point where renewable sources can satisfy all our needs with no resort to fossil fuels or nuclear power.

That should be the long-term goal."

but what about the Ipad 2 and Iphone5 and the next Ipad 3 after that. That is what it is all about.


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ml johnstone

Mar 18, 2011 at 1:49pm

seems to me the way things go is: we build "it "and then find the problems
take the automobile , PLEASE

245,000 deaths, in the US each year, millions of injuries...
all that requires extra expenditure of energy
emergency response, hospital time and space, police surveillance, roads, parking lots, 2 car garages, fast food junk joints, noise noise and more stress and toxic exhaust aimed straight into our little ones faces and lungs
then all the chemicals for the car besides gas/oil like antifreeze, brake fluids, transmission fluids, etc
add to this coroners, court cases, funerals, crime, roads and more roads, bridges, loss of habitat and agricultural land,belligerent drivers
manufacturing of them,repairing them, new parts,etc etc
we kept supporting all things automobile
because that was the way to go once we were in gear
innovative public transit was just an aside
we bail the companies out now and still spend a huge % of public funds and private on them
isn't this what we have done with nuclear and the coal, gas, oil industries???

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Eye on the media

Mar 18, 2011 at 5:27pm

Any rational assesment of risk looks at two things: the likelihood of an adverse event, and the amount of possible harm caused by that event. I would say that we should be more critical of estimates of the likelihood of catastrophic nuclear events in the wake of Fukushima, but also be mindful of the very real potential for poisoning with radioactive isotopes of a large area - land, sea, and air - with elements which can remain extremely toxic and highly radioactive for tens, hundreds, up to thousands of years.

Given that the worst catastrophe involved with wind power would be either killing birds or people (if a turbine fell over), and the risk of catastrophic harm caused by wave power, geothermal, photovoltaic, energy conservation, biomass or any number of other greener energy options which have received a pittance in research money compared to nuclear (or, for that matter, the $2B+ tax incentives the tar sands go this year alone from Harper's gang) is so small, Dyer's math just doesn't add up - actuarially speaking. If it did, private insurance companies would give nuclear stations more than the capped-at-$10B policies they do, and government (sorry, citizens) wouldn't be on the hook for the immense potential costs of a catastrophic event here at home.

Still see scarcely any mention in the media of the distinction between the health effects of gamma radiation (as in xrays) and alpha and beta particle radiation (much more immediately dangerous, and persistent, and only found with fission product isotopes). Our scientific sophistication as a people is pretty dismal.

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