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Expired · 9th April 2011
Ray Grigg
Two of the world's foremost environmental thinkers, James Lovelock and George Monbiot, have highlighted the seriousness of global warming by endorsing nuclear power as the best energy option presently available if humanity is to avoid a planetary climate meltdown. Monbiot's endorsement of nuclear power is even more striking given that it was offered in response to the initial crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi reactor.

Lovelock's position is more easily explained. As the originator of the Gaia Theory and as a biologist and climatologist with a long history of scientific research, Lovelock sees nuclear power as the only option able to sustain our energy-hungry civilization. Because we are unlikely to willingly surrender the amenities of industrial consumerism, the logical solution for Lovelock is that we endure the environmental and financial costs of nuclear power plants.

Monbiot, like Lovelock, is also a clear-thinking rationalist and pragmatist, unswayed by the hopeful prospects of green power. While he gives top priority to renewable energy sources and conservation, he also recognizes we are moving so rapidly toward a climate catastrophe that we need a transition power that will give us time to find a survivable equilibrium with our planet's biosphere. Curtailing the burning of carbon-emitting fossil fuels, whether this be coal, oil or natural gas, is mandatory. For Monbiot, given a choice between the disadvantages of fossil fuels or nuclear, nuclear is the better of two bad options. And, as he pointed out immediately after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi plant performed relatively well considering the forces of nature that assailed it.

But is this good enough for a technology that employs nuclear energies of unforgiving power and unimaginable destruction? Indeed, the unfolding events at Fukushima Daiichi may be a better example of heroic effort to manage disaster than to avert it. Design flaws were discovered after the plant had been built so the General Electric "Mark I" model needed extensive and costly renovations before it could be activated. The plant's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), had a history of falsifying records and feigning safety checks. The coastal plant was located within easy reach of tsunamis and the backup diesel generators that were supposed to maintain cooling water to the reactors were placed on low ground subject to flooding. Third level battery power was insufficient. Inadequate safety drills, a false sense of security and then staff exhaustion likely contributed to a diesel generator running out of fuel and an air-flow valve being incorrectly turned off, two lapses that nearly caused uncontrolled meltdown. Human error, an extreme natural disaster and bad design all converged to cause a "low-probability, high-consequence event", the nuclear industry's sanitized term for an unmitigated disaster.

Linda Keen, a former President of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and chair of a global safety review of reactors, noted that, "In my experience, I found nuclear engineers extremely optimistic.... They're optimistic about everything: how fast they're going to do things, the cost, the idea of whether you are going to have an accident or not" (Globe & Mail, Mar. 16/11). This optimism seems to bathe the entire nuclear industry in a rosy glow ‹ until Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi cast their sobering shadow on reality.

If Monbiot and Lovelock are correct in supporting the nuclear option because our civilization's energy needs are on a collision course with our climate security, then this may justify the massive subsidies governments commit to build, insure and decommission these power plants – private investors cannot afford such costs. Tepco estimates that collecting and storing the radioactive mess at Fukushima Daiichi and dismantling four of its six reactors will take 30 years and cost $12 billion.

Old reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi vintage were designed to last about 30 years. Newer ones have a life expectancy of 40 to 60 years. So all reactors must eventually be dismantled. The US places this cost at $325 million per reactor. But actual costs usually range from two to nearly four times that amount ‹ a small French reactor recently cost $667 million to dismantle, 20 times the original estimate. The Three Mile Island reactor, which suffered a "core fusion" event in 1979, will cost an estimated $805 million to render safe – costs can only be estimates because high radioactive levels require that nuclear reactors be dismantled in stages that can take up to a 50 years. The core of these reactors, the pressure vessel, is usually buried because no other disposal option is available. A British study estimates that $118 billion will be needed to decommission the country's 19 functioning nuclear reactors.

Since nuclear reactors have a finite lifespan, the cost of eventually dismantling and replacing the world's existing supply of approximately 440 – which, incidentally, provide only about 15 percent of today's electrical energy – will be astronomical. And, given present technology, if this must be done every 40 to 60 years, then nuclear power will be a prohibitively expensive energy of the future.

Prior to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the fear that halted the expansion of nuclear industry was beginning to abate. Now, of the 300 reactors presently being planned or built, many of these projects will undoubtedly be reviewed.

But the larger question remains. Given rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the catastrophic effects of global climate change to both the planet's biosphere and human civilization, what are we to do? James Lovelock, the biologist and climatologist who thinks in terms that span multiple-millennia, seems to give a nod of compassionate resignation to our human folly. George Monbiot, the humanist and problem solver who thinks about the immediacy of the moment, is trying to avert a climate catastrophe. For anyone brave enough to even ponder the subject, the options are daunting.