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Message from Fukushima - stop playing with fire and harvest the sun

By Martin Leggett - 14 Mar 2011 11:33:0 GMT
Message from Fukushima - stop playing with fire and harvest the sun

Like an appalling script from some disaster movie, events in Japan have unfolded along a tragic arc - from earthquake to tsunami to potential man-made disaster. The frailty of man's endeavors has been bleakly revealed by the casual destruction wreaked, as Friday's tectonic shift, left much of the north-east coast of Japan first shaken, and then swamped by an ocean on the move. But even while the world has been horrified by the human losses from these twin natural disasters, eyes are also riveted to a very unnatural consequence - nuclear reactors blowing their tops in a shocking fashion.

In a fast-moving series of events, that are still ongoing, first 11 of Japan's nuclear reactors were shut-down, under fail-safe systems triggered by the earthquake. These cut the nuclear reaction in the core, and then brought emergency cooling systems to bear, to bring the exceptionally high core temperatures back down to a safe level. Then the fail-safe systems failed.

2 reactors at Fukushima Daiichi have already seen massive explosions shooting their roofs skywards, injuring personnel and risking radiation leaks. A third reactor is possibly following the same course, as its cooling system has also failed. With mass evacuations around the affected reactors compounding the tragedy inflicted by the tsunami, many are now asking - was Japan sensible to put so many of its eggs into the nuclear basket?

The noises from the Japanese authorities are reassuring. The explosions have not damaged the containment vessels - the massive structures meant to prevent the leak of radiation, or to halt a core meltdown in its tracks. The levels of radiation leaked from the plants has also been relatively small. And nuclear experts from across the world are pouring soothing comments onto the troubled waters. This can't be another Chernobyl, the Japanese light-water reactors are much safer, they say, than those Soviet dinosaurs

They are probably right. But as a result of a high reliance on nuclear power - which supplies up to a third of Japanese power - its people and economy are likely. A prolonged period of power shortages, in the wake of the earthquake, seems on the cards. Which does raise the issue of how sensible it may have been - for a country in one of most tectonically active parts of the world - to build so many reactors literally on the fault-line.

Of course, it can, and will, be argued that Japan is a special case, that lessons will be learned, and that the dangers are being magnified. And after all, we need nuclear power to fast-track the shift to a low-carbon economy. Those arguments are all quite sensible, and rational, but they miss the point.

Nuclear power is playing a dangerous game. It is dealing with reactions and effects which are only loosely understood and controlled. The risks from failure are long-standing and abhorrent. That's why images of exploding nuclear plants resonate, and make us want to push this technology away. We are playing with fire. And after all, as a species, we seem to have a knack for getting burnt.

Meanwhile, the technology is there for safely harvesting the fruits of our own star's nuclear power - the sun which drives the wind, and waves and sunshine. These technologies simply need the political will, and financial muscle, to be harvested, and so safely provide humanity with energy - energy that doesn't dabble with dark arts we pretend to understand.