Andrew Revkin notes on Dot Earth that the costs of an enormous earthquake in Indonesia, and in Japan are measured very differently. In Indonesia (or alternatively, Haiti) the cost is measured in human lives. More than 200,000 dead, but only $14 billion. In Japan, there’s a tenfold difference. ~20,000 dead, but $300 billion. I can’t help but think this says something about the morality of our global economy. What, I’m not quite sure.
Whatever the outcome, I don’t think anyone should be surprised by the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Like virtually all nuclear plants, they’ve been safe and quiet for decades. But they’re not the kind of thing you can walk away from. And sometimes, you need to walk away. Volcanoes erupt. The Earth trembles beneath your feet. There are floods, and famines, epidemics and wars. We do a good job of ignoring these things when they aren’t pressing concerns. It makes life simpler and more enjoyable, especially since historically, we’ve had little power to do anything about infrequent, terrifying events.
I’m not categorically against nuclear power. If we can do it in a responsible, scalable way, then great. Making 10,000-100,000 year commitments is not responsible. We can’t keep those promises. Extracting only a couple of percent of the fuel’s energy isn’t scalable to tens of terawatts for centuries or millennia. So any scalable, responsible nuclear power will involve breeding fissile fuel, and re-processing spent fuel to remove fission products that inhibit the chain reaction. Additionally, to be responsible in my mind, a nuclear power station should be something you can walk away from at a moment’s notice, with no fear of catastrophe. It should be something that an invading (or perhaps more likely, retreating) army cannot use as part of a scorched earth campaign without a major engineering effort that would take months of work.
But obviously, that’s not where we are today.