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Is nuclear power really safe, and is it sustainable?

April 30, 2011

When I was in Germany at the end of March, the anti-nuke demonstrations were in full swing.  In Hamburg I saw hundreds of demonstrators taking to the streets, carrying flags and banners declaring their unwillingness to share the planet with nuclear power plants.  Following the catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, who can blame them for their fears?  This catastrophe is very grave, it’s very real and it will be long lasting.

Germany has 17 nuclear reactors that together produce 25% of the country’s electrical power.  Following the failure of the plant in Japan, Germany has shut down seven of its oldest reactors until they are thoroughly inspected and certified to be safe.  However, under immense pressure from concerned citizens who are willing to pay more for power to eliminate the threat altogether, the country is being forced to study the possibility of shutting down all 17 reactors, permanently.

Is nuclear power safe?  This question will never ever be answered.  There will always be nuke plants running safely — score points for the pro-nuke side.  And there will occasionally be more catastrophes — score points for the anti-nuke side.  So the question will never be definitively answered because nuclear power will work properly, at the very best, only most of the time.

Nevertheless, I believe that the risks to nuclear power can be mitigated when the system is properly designed.  I don’t know who approved the design at Fukushima that called for putting the cooling systems on the beach instead of on higher ground.  But given the fact that Japan sits on a major tectonic fault line and the country has a history of major earth quakes, it seems now to be very foolish to not have considered the possibility of an offshore quake causing a tsunami.  Nevertheless, there are hundreds of nuclear plants running all over the world, and they are running safely.

But one thing bothers me about nuclear power that isn’t usually discussed.  Nuclear power isn’t sustainable power.  Countries will still have to dig into the earth to mine Uranium which will be consumed as it generates heat to produce electric power.  And more mining will have to follow to replace the Uranium that gets used up.  China is building nuclear plants as fast as they can, which means more mining is going to happen.  So it sounds like a higher-tech version of our coal problem to me.  Mining will continue to destroy the environment, and radio active ore will eventually get all used up.  Then what?

I still believe that sustainable energy is the answer in the long term.

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