The world still needs nuclear power — but it must be safer and more transparent.
Earlier this month, an explosion in the energy sector caused immense destruction, costing the lives of more than 40 people ... but most of us barely noticed it.
The deaths of the coal miners, up to 4,000 feet below ground in western Pakistan, were eclipsed by the international attention given to the crisis in another energy sector — nuclear power — as engineers working in the aftermath of a major earthquake in Japan lost control of the temperature of a series of reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
At Fukushima Daiichi no-one has died from radiation exposure, though two workers were taken to hospital yesterday.
Accidents at nuclear power plants are rare. In contrast, coal-mining disasters are too frequent to merit much attention — more than 6,000 coal miners died in 2004 in China alone. Uranium-mining also kills, but on a much smaller scale.
Indeed, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), if coal, hydroelectric, natural gas and nuclear energy are analysed from cradle to grave, nuclear power is the safest.
Impact on climate change
The balance between the risks posed by nuclear power and coal is even more skewed if the effects of burning fossil fuels on global warming are taken into account. Coal-fired energy will indirectly cause many more deaths than the IEA estimates, because the greenhouse gases emitted as it burns contribute to climate change.
The WHO says that climate change is already killing 150,000 people a year by increasing extreme weather conditions and the geographical range of infectious diseases, and by straining food production systems because of droughts, floods and temperature changes.
The Pakistan coal-mining accident has not led to calls for the world to reconsider its global addiction to coal-fired power stations. But the accident at Fukushima has triggered global introspection on the wisdom of pursuing nuclear power. So far, Germany has temporarily shut down seven reactors, and China has suspended approval for new reactors. Pressure groups opposed to nuclear power are at work on governments across the world.
The truth is that all energy choices carry risks. Handled properly, nuclear power remains a relatively safe option. And it is currently the key industrial-scale energy source that can help us in the fight against climate change.
Learning from Fukushima
The Fukushima plant was destroyed as a result of the 10-metre-high tsunami that washed onto the Japanese north-east coast after the magnitude 9 earthquake of 11 March.
The earthquake destroyed the plant's principal power supply and the wave took out its backup electricity sources, leaving four reactor buildings — including some ponds containing spent fuel rods — bereft of coolant.
Lessons are already being learnt from the incident. For example, reactors designed in the 1970s have weaknesses to which experts had already drawn attention, and should be upgraded or decommissioned. New technologies are much safer.
And there is a need for good governance, openness and transparency in operating nuclear facilities if public trust is to be maintained. One of the main reasons for the high level of public anxiety in Japan following the disaster is that the company responsible for operating the plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, has a long history of covering up embarrassing information about its operations.
As nuclear power spreads to less developed countries without deep repositories of expertise, we should consider a regulatory role for the International Atomic Energy Authority, instead of its current role of helping countries upgrade their safety and prepare for emergencies.
A need for nuclear
Those already opposed to nuclear power are drawing more far-reaching conclusions. Likening the accident to the meltdown at Chernobyl, they say that the Fukushima accident demonstrates that nuclear power is unacceptably dangerous and should be phased out in favour of other energy sources.
But a flight from nuclear power would risk a disastrous run on fossil fuels — pumping yet more greenhouse gases into a carbon-laden atmosphere. It may also lead to a prematurely high demand for biofuels, current versions of which could have a woeful effect on the global food supply and might even cause a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions, according to some models.
Renewable energy is another alternative and great advances are being made in developing it. Middle Eastern and North African countries are considering how to turn their hot deserts into solar thermal power sources, and photovoltaics have an important role in servicing the 1.5 billion off-grid poor in the developing world.
Renewables certainly hold great promise and might one day be a major part of greener, cleaner energy systems. But they face major problems — most importantly, they cannot yet produce the vast quantities of centralised, guaranteed power of the kind that makes a nation's industry and infrastructure function. Time and investment may solve these problems. But it will take decades.
The world — and that includes developing countries — needs nuclear power. After Fukushima, efforts should be focused on making it modern and safe, with transparent operations embedded in well-governed societies. Apolitical commitment to transparency is vital.
Like any other source of energy, nuclear poses risks, and these need to be managed properly. But, ultimately, climate change is the bigger threat. Choosing to combat it without nuclear power carries a far greater risk.
News and features editor, SciDev.Net