The Future of Nuclear Energy and the Threats of Coal & Natural Gas
Like most of the world, I have been giving a lot of thought recently to the question of nuclear energy. Just 4 weeks ago, before the Fukushimadisaster, I was asked a question about Nuclear energy while presenting at Tribefest in Las Vegas. I gave my standard answer, an answer that has been haunting me for weeks. “Unfortunately, while nuclear energy may have long term environmental consequences, the imminent threat of climate change and the economic realities of the energy markets make nuclear a necessity in the short term.”
What is clear in my answers was a miscalculation of the short term threat of nuclear energy, especially in older reactors. After Chernobyl the world was promised that this type of disaster would not happen again, that safeguards were in place. It is clear now that this was not true. But are all nuclear reactors unsafe? Was it design, location, age or something else that causes this crisis? Which should we close down and which to keep open? Can we keep building modern nuclear facilities, are they safe enough?
We find ourselves faced with a terrible choice. Ideally the world would move towards wind, solar, geothermal and other alternative energies, but this is not the political and economic reality our leaders are choosing. Our societies are instead faced with the short term dilemma, as the grassroots works to change the political and economic landscape, of making the choice between nuclear and carbon based fuels such as coal and natural gas.
“I don’t think we are going to pursue civil nuclear energy in coming years,” said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu when asked by Piers Morgan on CNN whether the situation in Japan will affect plans to construct nuclear plants in Israel. “The cloud of radioactivity, the uncertainty of what will happen with it, is the cloud that hangs over the people of Japan, and I think right now hangs over the world… I think we’ll go for the gas and skip the nuclear.” (Of course Israel is the leading provider of solar and wind technology in the world and has huge renewal energy potential, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Coal extraction leads to thousands of deaths and immense environmental destruction annually (Approx 3500 miners dies each year in China, 50 in the United States). A far larger toll in six months, than have resulted in the 25 years since the Chernobyl disaster.
In both Israel and the United States a move towards natural gas exploration through hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has the potential for similarly disastrous environmental and human health results. Concerns associated with fracking include ground water contamination and air pollution through the use of hydraulic fracturing chemicals and the mishandling of solid, liquid and gas waste. Already a well established practice in the United States, a study published in 2010 by the EPA reported contaminants in drinking water including: arsenic, copper, and more. Many of these contaminants are known to cause a variety of illnesses such as cancer, kidney failure, anaemia, and fertility problems.
In 2008, Israel’s Ministry of Infrastructure granted Israel Energy Initiatives (IEI) the right to produce gas and liquid fuel from oil shale in the Elah Valley, where David fought Goliath, without requiring an environmental impact assessment or master plan. In August 2010, Adam Teva V’Din, the Union for Environmental Defence, challenged the legality of those rights, and requested a revocation of IEI’s mining license from the Israeli High Court. in November 2010 Rupert Murdoch and Lord Jacob Rothschild purchased shares worth $11 million in Genie Oil and Gas Inc., the company that owns 89% of IEI, Putting a lot of support behind the project and the move to bring fracking to Israel. No ruling has yet been made.
The ongoing nuclear disaster in Fukushima has brought the world’s attention back to the dangers of nuclear energy. This is an important awakening to a huge potential environmental threat and hopefully another motivator to implement alternative energy technologies. But while we close old and dangerous nuclear power plants, let us not rush to eliminate the technology entirely if the alternative is an increased dependency on coal and natural gas, even if just in the short term.
As is often the case, a more careful examination of the evidence is needed or our desires to do the right thing in response to the Fukushima disaster may cause us to do more damage than good.