revolution in Northern Africa/Libya is still ongoing but features rather low on news sites, and academic scandals are forgotten totally - the earthquake plus tsunami in Japan has swept most other stories from the screen.
Fair enough. What we have seen from Japan has been harrowing. Crane & Matten have taught and worked with many Japanese students over the years and our thoughts have been with them in recent days. We hope that they and their families are all fine and wish them our heartfelt best. Let us know how things are going!
One facet of the catastrophe though moves it clearly to a next level of watching some apocalyptic science fiction movie: We are talking about the ongoing news story about the explosion and potential meltdown of so far four nuclear reactors (by the time we write this). The nuclear beast is rearing its ugly head again.
We remember when the Chernobyl accident happened in 1986 many western commentators put much of the blame on the allegation that the Soviets had old technology, they did not run things properly and anyway, it just went to show that communists are not good at anything. Now – this is Japan, one of the high tech capitalist nations of the world. Sure, this was triggered by one of the top 5 earthquakes in history. But in Japan, earthquakes are not what extreme snowstorms are in Britain. The Kobe earthquake which claimed six and a half thousand lives happened just 16 years ago.
The event hits at a time when nuclear power was experiencing a second spring in many industrial countries. As a carbon-free source of energy it seems a good alternative to fossil fuels, which are considered key drivers of climate change. Many countries that have been shying away from nuclear after Chernobyl or the Harrisburg incident in the US are now reconsidering their options. Finland has just built some new reactors, Obama has issued fresh permits for uranium mining in Colorado, even Germany (which ruled it out 10 years ago) is prolonging the life-cycles of its existing plants – just to name a few examples.
While many experts in environmental politics considered the debate on nuclear power dead by the beginning of the last decade, it is amazing to see that it has come back. The disaster unfolding as we speak in Japan elucidates exactly why a rational discourse on nuclear power is so difficult.
The main threats of this technology are consequences which are mostly uncertain or even unknown. In other words, these ‘risks’ – apart from a few accidents we have seen – entail consequences which humans normally will find difficult to imagine, much less to calculate. The speculations on TV by ‘experts’ about what happens to Japan in case this really turns bad clearly demonstrates this. While the probability of nuclear incidents historically has been very low, the potential impact is without boundaries. Geographical boundaries, but also temporal ones: how long will people suffer from the fallouts we have already seen this weekend? Not to think about the worst case scenario...
Nuclear risks are unique. Their probability – from all we know – is rather low and since we have so few incidents, they are hardly calculable (unlike your car insurance, where we have ample data to establish probabilities). At the same time, the potential impact or damage of a nuclear accident tends toward infinity. Thus the normal way of assessing risks is rather difficult: a probability next to zero times a damage next to infinity – what exactly does this risk look like?
It is here where irrationality and ideology often fill a gap in the debate, as rational concepts fail to analyze the problem. This is exacerbated by the problem that nuclear risks are now ‘compared’ to the risks of global warming – which again is a risk that is difficult to calculate. Not much mathematical information exists on how likely the increase in temperature is. And even less information is available on how hard climate change will hit, where, when, who, and which parts of the world. So, finding trade-offs between nuclear risks and climate change risks is next to impossible – proving another characteristic of those modern risks: their ‘incommensurability’, meaning, it is impossible to ‘compare’ and weigh these risks against each other.
So what hope is there after this wake-up call about the fact that nuclear is not the silver bullet against climate change? We have to accept that climate change is real (even though we can say with little certainty how exactly it will hit us) and nuclear power is not a safe option either. We would argue that much more effort, resources and political will has to be directed toward alternative sources of energy: energy saving (by many accounts our largest resource), renewables, and lifestyle changes. If the disaster in Japan would trigger that debate there is at least a glimmer of hope coming out of this unfolding catastrophe.
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