As scary as the current Japanese nuclear disaster is with radiation displacing thousands of people and poisoning the ocean around the plant, the environmental damage caused silently by the business-as-usual use of coal, natural gas, oil, and hydroelectric power is arguably greater than the current nuclear crisis. The mainstream media doesn’t send out camera crews to film coal-fired power plants operating as designed, or natural gas fracking wells, or mountaintop removal mining, but that doesn’t mean that each isn’t an ongoing ecological catastrophe.
To understand what Fukushima really means, it is helpful to step back and avoid seeing the disaster in isolation. Does the catastrophe mean there is merely a problem with this plant design, or nuclear power as a whole, or the entire highly complex technologically dependent way of life we’re a part of? Is the problem the way electricity is produced, or that the system needs so damn much of it in the first place? What can we do to move in a different direction?
The nuclear disaster in Japan is a warning against nuclear power — perhaps just in time to slow down a global rush towards construction of more nuclear power plants to supply exploding demand for electricity. Many reasonable people have recently begun supporting nuclear power as a “clean” — or at least non-greenhouse gas emitting — supply of power; a way of continuing business as usual and fueling rapid economic expansion while avoiding devastating climate change.
For nuclear power, the infrequent nuclear accidents that release radiation are by no means the most worrisome risks. The greatest risk from nuclear power has always been the waste. In the US and around the world, there is no realistic plan for permanently and safely disposing of the waste, some of which can be dangerous for 100,000 years.
While most of the attention at Fukushima has been on the partial meltdown of the reactor cores and release of radiation from the containment structures, it is now apparent that a significant amount of radiation released has been from spent nuclear fuel stored in cooling ponds. In the US, with no permanent nuclear waste disposal site, it is instead stored in identical large cooling ponds at each nuclear plant, sometimes for many years. After waste cools for 5 years, it can be moved to dry storage casks, which then pile up around the plant waiting for some place to go. But many plant operators aren’t putting waste in casks because to do so would cost billions of dollars. This is a dangerous legacy to leave future generations.
Nuclear also fails the “clean” test because the uranium used in reactors has to be mined, creating more radioactive waste and contaminated water around mining sites that is rarely discussed. Perhaps this is because many mines are on indigenous land. And while Obama and leaders around the world have signaled their desire to build more nuclear power plants as an alternative to fossil fuels, private industry is holding back because in addition to the dangers, building nuclear power plants is extremely expensive — possibly cost prohibitive when compared to cheap fossil fuels. Most US nuclear power plant construction stopped in the late 1970s not because of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, but because building nuclear plants was not cost competitive.
And yet nuclear is potentially less dangerous than burning fossil fuels, because with nuclear power at least someone has a rough idea of where the waste products are. When people burn fossil fuels, the waste goes up into the atmosphere and drifts at will, changing the chemistry of the oceans and warming the climate.
One hundred years from now, it is highly likely that the disastrous environmental changes caused by fossil fuel combustion — which will effect every part of the globe, not just areas near industrialized population centers — will dwarf the more confined dead zones that are nuclear power’s legacy. Climate change threatens to collapse agricultural production by creating climate chaos where farmers need predictability — freak storms, untimely freezes in normally warm regions, heat waves, droughts in some areas and unusually heavy rain and flooding in others. Ocean acidification could wipe out fish as we know them by dissolving the calcium that makes up bones and shells. Biologists already believe we’re in the sixth global species extinction, on par with the climatic changes that caused dinosaurs to go extinct.
Coal-fired electricity emits the most carbon dioxide (CO2) per unit of power generated, although a recent study by Cornell professor Robert Howarth found that natural gas may contribute more to global warming than previously thought because of significant emissions of unburned gas during drilling and transport, which is 20 times as potent a green house gas as CO2. Gas drilling is expanding and gas prices falling as new fracking techniques open up gas fields around the US, often threatening local water supplies.
The US alone burns about 1,000 million tons of coal per year according to the US Energy Information Agency, mostly to generate electricity. Coal emits about 5,000 pounds of CO2 per ton burned. Mining it causes localized devastation. Despite this, coal plants with 50-year service lives are still being constructed in the US and around the world. India and China are completing approximately one new coal-fired power plant per week.
If the US closed all of its 104 nuclear power plants tomorrow, which produce about 20 percent of US electricity, coal and gas are the cheapest and most likely alternatives.
The US is gearing up to increase coal exports, mostly to China and India. Washington state is currently considering two proposals to construct coal export terminals — one in Longview at the mouth of the Columbia river that could export 60 million tons per year and the other in Bellingham north of Seattle that would handle 24 million tons per year. Each would load coal onto ships moved by train from the Power River Basin in Montana and Wyoming.
The common threads that join nuclear, coal, natural gas and oil is centralized corporate control, short-term means-to-an-end thinking, and a blind reliance on technology without attention to consequences. It is easy to see the way power is constantly and automatically consumed in our world as inevitable, invisible or even natural.
Is anyone asking whether all this electricity is really meeting our most important human needs — for freedom, for meaning, for pleasure, for expression, for community? Unlimited electricity is most important to the hyper complex systems all around us that steal our time, manage our desires, and try to distract us from what is going on with cheap thrills, empty-calorie treats, facebook status updates, and media extravaganzas.
Its likely that a world with less electricity would be a world in which each of us could be more fully alive, human, and free. How often during an average hectic workday do any of us get a chance to stop and take a moment to notice the enormity and wonder of our existence? Standing on our feet, feeling gravity, feeling the wind flow around us and the sun warming our skin. Our wired society has stolen these moments from us just as it has stolen the stars from a dark night sky.
Disasters like Fukushima can focus our minds and help us build resistance, community, and alternatives. Or, they can be used by the system to distract us from the ongoing, daily disaster of business as usual. Resistance is possible beginning in each of our own heads and spreading to those around us. The nuclear and coal worldview depends on massive centralization and scale, and therein lie its vulnerability because it has lost touch with what is important and human, just as they have become disconnected from what is healthy, sustainable and safe.