Robert Dujarric: Why a Nukes-Free Future is a False Dream
The emotional reaction to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster has failed to take into account the risks and costs inherent in the alternatives to atomic electricity generation.
Opponents of nuclear power often suggest that the solution is consuming less energy. This is a worthy goal, but there are limits to what can be achieved without accepting a fall in the standard of living except if one accepts a return to the Stone Age. Moreover, there are still billions of human beings on the planet who live in poverty. If they are to enjoy a better life they will need to consume more energy to light and heat their homes, wash their clothes, keep their food cold and travel to school and work. They will -- rightly -- want to have access to goods that require manufactured energy and to energy-consuming services. Therefore, though they mean well, the more extreme antinuclear groups in the developed world want to deny a large percentage of humankind the benefits of a modern technologically advanced standard of living that they themselves enjoy. Their message to the world's poor is "Sorry, the boat is full, have a nice day, it was nice knowing you."
Another alternative to nuclear plants could be solar- or wind-based electricity production and other sources of energy such as biomass or hydroelectricity. Unfortunately there are severe technological and economic obstacles to be overcome to allow these techniques to make a much greater contribution to the world's energy needs. Additionally, some of them, such as biofuels, turn out to have ecological and other costs that make them far from perfect. Questions are often raised about the unintended ecological consequences of the dams that produce hydroelectricity. In several cases, such as the dams Turkey has built upriver from Syria and Iraq, hydroelectricity can fuel international conflicts between upstream and downstream nations. Investing more in these options makes sense. Regulatory changes and effective tax incentives could help a lot. But we cannot expect renewables to "solve" the energy question in the foreseeable future. Moreover, if they come online, the priority should be to use them to decrease oil consumption.
Thus, though they seldom mention it, those who seek to abandon nuclear power are arguing in favor of greater reliance on fossil fuels. Their prescription is "let's burn more oil and let's drill everywhere." Unfortunately, there are costs associated with this option. One that is often forgotten is the geopolitical price. The inescapable fact is that the largest reserves are located in politically volatile regions, principally but not exclusively the Persian Gulf and North Africa. West Africa, where oil is also plentiful, is not particularly stable, and few can predict with certainty that Kazakhstan will remain the steady autocracy it has been since the breakup of the Soviet Union. With regard to natural gas, countries such as Russia and Qatar are not the ideal suppliers. In fact, of the major oil and gas exporters, only Norway and Canada (for gas) qualify as countries that offer stability, the rule of law and foreign-policy ambitions that are compatible with world peace.
Thus, as a consequence of the distribution of petroleum reserves, the United States and its allies have had to sacrifice the lives of their servicemen and women and spend trillions of dollars over the past decades to sustain a military establishment that could, in case of emergency, take control of the Persian Gulf oil fields. The self-destructive U.S. invasion of Iraq has understandably discredited American intervention in the region. But the fact remains that should a dreadful contingency -- be it a global Shia-Sunni war, an Iran-Saudi conflict or an al-Qaeda uprising in Saudi Arabia -- threaten to shut off the Persian Gulf oil fields, even the most devoted pacifists in Japan would want the U.S. military -- perhaps helped this time by China and partly funded by Japanese taxpayers -- to take control of the region to prevent a Great Depression II.
Nuclear power itself is not without its disadvantages. These include storage of radioactive waste, control of highly dangerous substances that can be used to build nuclear weapons and the potential for lethal accidents. Policies that encourage conservation and development of alternative sources of energy are highly desirable. But overall, countries that decide to abandon nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi accident may well be embarking on a road that will do more harm than good to their economies and the environment.
Robert Dujarric is director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan campus. He gave a paid lecture at Areva University in 2008.
Lars Baron/Getty Images