Fukushima’s global fallout

Yoshihiko Noda last week replaced Naoto Kan as Japan’s prime minister due to a widespread backlash against what the public perceived as Kan’s mismanagement of the nation’s recovery following the devastation of the Tohoku quake. Noda is the country’s sixth prime minister in five years. He has barely been on the job for a week and he’s already pledged to do something ill-considered with dangerous international ramifications.

On March 11 this year, the Japanese people suffered what is locally known as the Great East Japan Earthquake. Despite this relatively simple fact ‘Fukushima’, the name of a prefecture within the affected Tohoku region, is the proper noun practically everybody associates with the disaster. Maybe I’m weird, but I think a catastrophic natural disaster that killed thousands of people and left countless more injured is just a mite more important than a comparatively benign peripheral industrial accident. Reports fuelling widespread nuclear phobia have eclipsed coverage of the real tragedy, and this is rapidly generating a series of much larger problems.

Last Friday Noda promised to continue with the previous administration’s plan to slowly phase out the nation’s dependence on nuclear energy. Wait a second, the power plants didn’t cause the earthquake, so what’s going on here? This is where those other problems creep in; the largest being the global issue of anthropogenic climate change and the growing threat of a runaway greenhouse effect, which could potentially kill billions and displace any survivors.

According to Japan’s National Police Agency, the Tohoku quake killed 15,760 people, injured 5,927 and left 4,282 missing. You can find this with references on Wikipedia. The Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns caused by the quake left two workers dead from blood loss. Another 45 people died while or after being evacuated from Futaba hospital in the Fukushima prefecture, many of them from dehydration.

Comparisons were quickly made to that other nuclear accident, the 1986 one in Ukraine, which killed significantly more people but nonetheless scored the same on the IAEA’s international nuclear and radiological event scale. Naturally, politicians around the world promptly reacted by pledging aid for Japan and shitting bricks over the ‘dangers’ of nuclear power. That was when a well-managed industrial accident became a global disaster. It was exasperating to hear not only Australia’s own odd couple Bob Brown and Julia Gillard brainlessly bleating, but also of Germany’s plan to cripple its nuclear energy facilities; a move which analysts predict will cause eight million tonnes of carbon to be released into the atmosphere within three months due to the re-commissioning of coal-fired power plants.

This has happened before on a much larger scale, and it wasn’t pretty: the cancellation of dozens of planned nuclear plants from 1979 onwards in response to pressure from the anti-nuclear movement, in the wake of the Three Mile Island partial meltdown, led to the construction of numerous coal-fired plants through the 1980s. These new plants dumped tens of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Now, in the 21st century, we really should know better. Environmentalist author Mark Lynas wrote in his recent book The God Species that “[anyone] who marches against nuclear today, as many thousands of people did in Germany following the Fukushima accident, is in my view just as bad for the climate as textbook eco-villains like the big oil companies.”

News outlets played a huge part in catastrophizing public fears. The appearance of the ‘mutant’ bunnies of Fukushima on international television raised the media’s scare campaign to the scale of the Kuwaiti propaganda that arguably lead to the United Nations Security Council intervention in the first Gulf War. Their unspoken aim appears to be to inculcate the public with a blatantly false impression of the risks of nuclear power. By relishing this, the ‘environmental’ factions of the anti-nuclear movement are unwittingly playing right into the hands of their powerful big oil and big coal comrades. For Australia’s union-run Labor Party, this embrace of pollution over facts seems inevitable; but for the Australian Greens, who love to claim the ‘scientific’ high-ground, this is just insane.

Nuclear power is far less dangerous than other forms of power generation. Nuclear fission reactor technology efficiently and reliably meets national requirements for baseload power in ways that current renewable energy technologies cannot. It emits no greenhouse gases and when correctly deployed is otherwise safe for the environment. I would have thought those misanthropic scienticians at Greenpeace would have been quite taken with learning that the ecologies of human-purged nuclear accident sites recover rapidly. Moreover, nuclear waste is less radioactive than coal ash and unlike coal ash, nuclear waste can be consumed using existing technologies to generate more clean electricity. Nuclear power could be better, but I will discuss possible meltdown-proof and waste-consuming reactor technologies in another post. The fact is that the so-called ‘green’ arguments against nuclear energy are unscientific, reactionary and facile.

Which brings me back to Chernobyl. Yes, as I said, it is true that the Fukushima Daiichi incident was ranked by the IAEA as disastrous a nuclear event as Chernobyl. But how bad really was the Chernobyl accident? According to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation report, the corroborated death toll from the accident stands at around 50. Over the long term, about 4,000 children suffered cases of thyroid cancer due to exposure to radioactive iodine following the accident (which could have been prevented had the Soviets handed out iodine pills to evacuees), but thankfully only 17 of these cases proved fatal. The claim that leukaemia rates were elevated amongst evacuees and their children has all but been been refuted scientifically (the exception is a doubling of leukaemia risk amongst Chernobyl liquidators), and there is no scientific evidence to support claims of an increased incidences of deformities or illnesses in children as a result of radiation exposure. To quote the World Health Organization report: “reviews by the WHO Expert Group revealed no evidence of increased cancer risks, apart from thyroid cancer, that can clearly be attributed to radiation from Chernobyl.”

Try weighing this against the hazards of coal power. Last year alone, for example, coal mining accidents killed 2,433 people in China. This point bears repeating: for every one person who dies per terawatt of electricity generated by nuclear power facilities, pollution and accidents associated with the operation of coal-fired plants kills 4,000 times that number of people for the same amount of electricity.

Even so, radiation exposure can lead to horrible consequences, and we need not look further than the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings or the more recent victims of poisoning from ‘depleted uranium’ weaponry. But looking at the data, the biggest impact of the Chernobyl accident appears to be the psychological harm suffered by the survivors which has lead to higher rates of depression, somatoform disorders, alcohol abuse and suicide. There was even higher rates of abortion among the population of Eastern European women who believed they had been exposed. Mark Lynas writes in The God Species: “The unfortunate truth is that the general post-Chernobyl anti-nuclear hysteria, reinforced by exaggerated death tolls and impacts published over subsequent years by environmental groups, has probably worsened the victim status trauma suffered by the people who lived in the area.”

Perhaps the real humanitarian disaster of the Fukushima Daiichi accident is that this toxic scaremongering is happening all over again, despite the fact that the Japanese government handed out iodine pills to affected children. The situation in Japan is worse in some respects than Chernobyl. Due to caesium-137 contamination, there is likely to be an increased risk of cancer for those whose homes were located in the most contaminated regions of the disaster exclusion zone; and that area may need to remain evacuated for about 30 years, which obviously makes permanent relocation a real possibility for a number of people. Even so, these statistics indicate that the potential mortality rate from the increased risk of cancer pales in comparison to the almost 16,000 deaths that occurred directly because of the Tohoku quake. These nuances have been largely overlooked by the media, which seems quite content to contribute to the psychological suffering of those marked as victims. Of course, this won’t be helped by those aforementioned bricks shat and still being shitted by our world leaders.

Following the Tohoku disaster, Julia Gillard has again expostulated that we simply don’t need nuclear energy. This is despite our nation’s horrendous pollution profile, and the well-known fact that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions on a per-person basis are the highest in the world. Not one to be left behind, what with this being his shtick and all, Greens senator Bob Brown entered the fray with the ridiculous claim that nuclear energy generation is outside “the limits of human safeguards.” Yeah, not cool. Also, totally false. In fact, only the Coalition’s scientifically literate (how’s that for an oxymoron) former leader Malcolm Turnbull has offered meaningful commentary on the issue by sticking to his assertion that Australia needs nuclear power to cut our carbon emissions. Yeah, I’m still (grudgingly) voting Green, but I must admit, Turnbull gives me pause here.

Since the tasteless hysteria surrounding Japan’s nuclear accident began, Australia’s ‘Greenhouse Mafia‘ must have found themselves cackling on the inside with the current government’s reactionary regression into anti-nuclear sheepdom. In the past, Australia has succumbed to economic enticements and misinformation from the carbon lobbies to resist going nuclear. But now, what do we have to lose? The carbon tax? What about nationalized nuclear energy instead of carbon taxes? With more sensible and socially responsible taxation measures and initiative, it could be done. Australia hosts some of the world’s richest uranium deposits and therefore we have a very strong uranium mining industry. Our four mines supply 20% of the total uranium consumed by the world’s nuclear plants. Our uranium exports reduce global greenhouse emissions by about 400 million tonnes each year. (This is now likely to be reduced if more countries follow the anti-nuclear fad.) That’s a pretty commendable carbon emissions offset effort, and it’s something we should be proud of. Why not go that way locally?

If Julia Gillard and Bob Brown want to take home a lesson on the risks posed by earthquakes and tidal waves on electricity generation, why not focus on the 1,800 homes that were washed away when a Fukushima district dam used for hydroelectric power generation collapsed during the disaster? Perhaps the dreaded invocation ‘Fukushima’ more appropriately refers to the risks posed by dams built in earthquake-prone regions.

I am not the first Green to embrace nuclear energy. I’ve referenced the recent work of Mark Lynas extensively here. Soon after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, environmentally-inclined Guardian columnist George Monbiot made the switch. Even James Lovelock, de facto Pope of religious Greenism and originator of the batshit crazy Gaia hypothesis, has said “I am a Green and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy.” Honestly, the switch doesn’t hurt, and it gets better.

On the upside, the decision of the current Japanese administration could give rise to better renewable energy technologies for the rest of the world. The most high-tech nation on the planet may very well end up pioneering solar energy collection satellites and refining geothermal power generation to the point where it could be deployed globally (or maybe not, because the Japanese islands are much more volcanically active than most other countries). But that doesn’t justify Yoshihiko Noda’s reactionary nuclear power policies; and it certainly doesn’t justify the collective puling of the world’s politicians. Thankfully China, home of the world’s second largest and fastest growing economy, has remained grown-up and unfazed by the anti-nuclear panic.

Too many people miss the fact that all life on earth is fuelled by the really big nuclear reactor at the centre of the solar system. We in the Green movement love to play Socrates and ask our opponents to back up their claims with solid proof. This is a really good thing, but we also need to learn to accept the proof we’re given. We shouldn’t cling to beliefs that are no longer supported by the best available evidence. We have a serious climate change problem on our hands, and one of the most important tools we have to address it is nuclear power.

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One thought on “Fukushima’s global fallout

  1. Pingback: Nature doesn’t care about us « In Which I Wax Acerbic

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