Nuclear Reality Bites

Nuclear reality bites

European Union energy ministers agreed to disagree during an emergency meeting Monday to analyze the fallout (no pun intended) of Fukushima’s nuclear disaster on EU’s energy plans. Their conclusions implied the obvious about the future of nuclear energy: it’s indispensable for the time being and the debate should be about improving security around it, not phasing it out.

European ministers agreed stress tests are required to gauge how its 143 reactors -a third of the world’s total- would withstand earthquakes, floods, terrorism, and power loss. Austrian and German led efforts to standardize and legally bind the tests were rejected though and the ultimate make-up of the assessments won’t be decided until later this year.

Details of the heated debate surfaced afterwards and illustrated the split between pro and anti-nuclear forces in Europe. But they also highlighted reality. Around 30 percent of Europe’s electricity is nuclear, 14 percent globally. And there is no available technology to replace a zero-emission reliable base load like atomic power, not while meeting EU, US, or any other Western commitment to global warming.

To be sure, reality bites. While Japan’s nuclear tragedy is unprecedented since Hiroshima and only recently outdone by Chernobyl’s human-created disaster, it has triggered a revision that -unlike headline pessimism- will only consolidate nuclear power.

Human nature does not bow to mother nature. It’s our instinct. That is not to say we rule as a species over the earth. We are part of it and have to abide to its power. But that means perseverance. Japan showed us we must improve nuclear energy, not do without it.

Fukushima’s nuclear woes are the result not of one of world’s strongest recorded earthquakes, but of its resulting tsunami, according to a statement released by the European Nuclear Society, a science and industry umbrella group. There were also serious lapses committed before and during the crisis by Japanese authorities.

Will a tsunami or earthquake of that magnitude hit us any time soon? However unlikely, Japan’s suffering has showed us we must assume it will. Is Europe or any other country exempt from catastrophe? Not in the least.

Japan’s woes have taught us we had grown soft perhaps in oversight. Nobody in their right mind is disputing the need to reassess the safety of nuclear plants. After all, many plants were built decades ago, long before nature proved its wrath, however eventful, can lead to previously unimaginable disasters, such as the tsunamis and earthquakes of Japan and Indonesia in the last decade.

Industry and policy makers must improve security. In fact, the nuclear industry must seize this moment to prove it’s up to the task -and it is. Citizens are right to mistrust nuclear when they see the potential of fallout, no matter what hits us. Which means standards must be raised, security must be upgraded, and nuclear power must prove itself more resilient than nature, baring a cataclysm.

As an example, there is very little risk of a devastating earthquake or tsunami hitting Spain, but the country’s intelligence agency warned security inside the plant remains weak, as illustrated by Greenpeace raiders that managed to climb a cooling tower, despite a warning call.

Germany temporarily shut down 7 of its 17 reactors and declared a three-month moratorium on reactor lifespan extension; Italy buried its renewed efforts to build new reactors; the UK delayed its nuclear program, and Israel said it now sees nuclear power is unrealistic. Spain ordered a safety check of its reactors, including one almost identical to Fukushima that is due to be decommissioned in 2013, but it didn’t revise its reluctant decision to extend the life of nuclear power plants. The Netherlands and Slovakia, along with the US, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Russia, and China, also made clear that nuclear power can’t be replaced, while committing to further security upgrades.

It’s irresponsible to demand phasing out nuclear without offering alternatives, like Austria (which has no nuclear power) and Germany (which had elections this last weekend in which the ruling party was facing a crippling loss) are promoting. It’s simply unrealistic for the time being to propose replacing nuclear, and for that matter, the globe’s march toward safe and limitless energy is more likely to develop safer nuclear than a renewable panacea. (I can’t imagine a Mars mission fueled by the sun, at least not yet.)

Whatever the immediate political reaction, the world’s nuclear industry must show it can be trusted. It must move to convince its clients (which include a big chunk of the world’s population) that it’s up to the task.

© 2013 Energy Tribune

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