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Nuclear hubris in Japan is lesson for the entire world

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The tragic consequences of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan are truly awesome and demand the greatest of all compassionate responses. The power of natural forces is once again made manifest in the most brutal of ways. But what is making this tragedy all the more tragic is the man-made catastrophe that is the nuclear emergency consequent upon the earthquake/tsunami damage to several of Japan’s nuclear power stations. The catastrophe is man-made because there is no absolute necessity to build nuclear power stations at all. And certainly there is no necessity to build such stations in a zone vulnerable to earthquakes. It has to be the height of hubris to claim that you can design a nuclear power station to safely withstand any earthquake, let alone one that is combined with a tsunami. And the biggest recorded earthquake ever to hit Japan will forever be proof of that hubris. Even if complete nuclear meltdown is avoided in all of Japan’s stricken nuclear reactors, the sheer amount of effort and resources that have to be devoted to managing the nuclear situation is compounding the consequences of the natural tragedy, because the last thing anyone wants is the diversion of attention and resources away from helping the victims of the earthquake itself.

Then there is the lasting shortfall of power generation that will result from the nuclear emergency, because those stricken reactors will probably never be usable again (for the simple reason that most of them are now being flooded by sea-water, a truly last-ditch defence against meltdown). And for a country like Japan to be so reliant on power from nuclear reactors, the lack of power now will weaken the ability to help the recovery and rebuilding work in the affected areas as well as weaken the resilience of the Japanese economy and society generally. Indeed, according to the BBC website:

The triple blow of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident is set to damage the world’s third largest economy possibly more deeply and for longer than initially expected, analysts have said. Following the 1995 Kobe earthquake, Japan’s economy shrank by 2%, followed by a V-shaped recovery. But if the power supply is affected nationwide for a long period, it could lead to a sharp contraction of production. Oil prices are also significantly higher than after Kobe, the Yen is stronger, and the public finances are weaker“.

The prospect of Japan temporarily increasing its dependence on oil in order to deal with a tragic over-dependence on nuclear will only add to the increasingly dire peak oil problem for the whole world and may lead to Japan having to pay ruinously high prices for whatever oil it gets hold of, further weakening the resilience of the Japanese economy. Nuclear power may perhaps be safe enough if none of the worst-case scenarios of nuclear energy planners ever arise, but if they do arise in the form of black swan events, then nuclear power is catastrophically unsafe, and only adds to the unintended consequences of the black swan events themselves. Japan will hopefully be rescued from nuclear catastrophe, but it cannot be rescued from its overdependence upon nuclear power unless it radically changes course and transitions as soon as possible – as all nations should – to a truly resilient society based on renewable energies, free from nuclear power altogether. What better way to safeguard the future of the tsunami-hit areas of Japan than to rebuild those areas as exemplars of such a resilient, low-carbon, non-nuclear society; in that way, they would become beacons of hope for the whole world as well as guarantee the residents of those areas a secure future in the post peak oil world that is surely coming. But whatever Japan does about its future recovery, Japan’s present nuclear emergency is the starkest possible warning to the rest of the world that a nuclear future is always a uniquely perilous future that is forever at the mercy of unforeseen natural forces of unimaginable ferocity and power. Even in areas apparently free from earthquakes and tsunamis, Nature will always have a surprise or two in store, out-smarting the best-laid plans and calculations of mankind’s technological wizards.


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