The earthquake and tsunami in Japan have been a stunning disaster and a terrible human tragedy. We don’t yet know precisely how many lives will be lost or shattered, but the numbers will be immense. My thoughts, like those of people around the world, are with Japan and its people.
The ultimate impact of the damaged nuclear reactors is still playing out. As these things go in 2011, the 24/7 news cycle and social media mean that this is simultaneously a safety crisis and a global drama. Calls for curbing nuclear power, which had been poised for a renaissance, are being heard across the globe, louder than before. Germany has suspended operations at several of its older nuclear facilities, and other governments are considering similar action. Opponents of nuclear energy are being heard more loudly than before. And to be sure, the events of the past few days will provide many lessons about whether nuclear plants should operate in locations at risk of severe earthquakes, and more broadly about safe operations of such facilities. Failing to learn from this would only compound the tragedy.
But drawing overbroad conclusions would also be a mistake.
The reality is that every form of energy we have relied upon over the past century presents risks.. During the 20th century, more than 100,000 miners lost their lives in the United States, and many more suffered illness as the price of their livelihood, including last year in West Virginia. In China, coal mining remains a risky proposition, with thousands of deaths annually. We have also seen the dangers of deepwater drilling, up close and personal, thanks to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year. And even renewable energy has sparked local protests by communities who don’t like wind turbines, or others concerned about toxicity in solar panels.
And we should also recall that there are a great many invisible risks posed by oil, gas, and virtually any source of energy you can think of. The use of biomass in the home by the world’s poorest people is largely invisible, and yet is a problem of huge proportions. And, of course, climate change creates dislocation that is not always easy to pinpoint, but is nonetheless very present—and problematic.
My point here is not intended to deflect attention from the very real risks of nuclear power, especially when we don’t yet know how much worse the problems in Japan will get. Instead, it is worth remembering—especially in times of crisis—that we all have an interest in energy policy that does much more than lurch from crisis to crisis. This incident, just like last year’s Deepwater Horizon spill and Massey coal mining disaster, are vivid reminders that all forms of energy come with tradeoffs. Nuclear presents safety risks, but is low carbon. Natural gas is increasingly plentiful, and lower carbon, but may affect water safety. And wind and solar are great on greenhouse gases, but not yet available as widely or reliably as desired.
There is little doubt that for the foreseeable future we will need to rely on multiple energy sources, and manage these tradeoffs as wisely as possible, while moving toward a low carbon economy. This won’t happen if we make decisions based on which accidents are most easily captured on YouTube.
Perhaps one of the most important reminders to come from the tragedy in Japan is that we face an urgent need to get our energy mix right. This means a steady move to lower carbon forms of energy, which requires business innovation, more intelligent public policy, radical efficiency gains, and mastery of the technological challenges presented by nuclear and renewable sources. If we don’t do this, we will be left with all the risks we face today, and none of the benefits of stable, reliable, and clean energy.
So as tempting as it might be this week to eliminate nuclear as part of the future energy mix, that means eliminating a no-carbon fuel source that we may well need to stave off the slow motion disaster of climate change. That might relieve our anxiety as we watch the painful images from Japan, but it won’t leave us better off in the long run.
This blog also appears on The Huffington Post.