As the world's population continues to expand exponentially into the 21st Century, humankind's demand for food, water, space, shelter and energy multiplies right along with it.
In America, perhaps the only bastion of care against the relentless advance of the development and exploitation of nuclear power as an "alternative source" for energy generation, we have seen a retrenching of the pitched battle between the forces advocating an expanded use of nuclear power, and those questioning its ultimate safety and viability.
25 years after the disaster in Chernobyl, the consciousness of the danger and threat of nuclear accidents and non-disposable waste among the American public has been receding. President Obama--widely characterized as a liberal by the media during his political career--even went so far quite recently as to endorse the idea of new nuclear power plant licensing.
The technology of nuclear power generation has changed little since its inception in the 1950's. The concept seems relatively simple, but because of the difficulties involved, and the highly volatile and nefarious character of radioactive materials, it's an inherently risky business. Basically, it involves the setting into motion of a low-grade atomic reaction, controlled and insulated against escape (leaks). Everything that comes into contact with, or near, the actual reactive chemistry, becomes permanently and dangerously contaminated. There is no known way of "neutralizing" the "spent" radioactive materials from nuclear reactors, which lasts in this poisonous and contaminating form for thousands of years. No sensible solution to the problem of our growing "shit-pile" of radioactive waste has ever been brought forth. In the United States, "stock-piles" of this waste continue to build up, while jurisdictions argue about where and when it can be "dumped."
Primitive humans simply threw garbage into the backyard, or just outside the village. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, society has been struggling with the spectre of a burgeoning mass of "disposable" matter, which threatens to overwhelm our capacity (environment) to deal with it. Things which will rot or decompose are more easily managed, since the familiar material transformation of organic materials back into inert or harmless residue can be managed with eventual success. But with the rapid increase in the creation of "synthetic" materials, of which radioactive material is the most stubbornly persistent over time, we're looking at custodial obligations which will certainly outlive us by several millennia. This is an unreasonable faustian bargain to enter into, and everyone realizes this. Counting on some scientific breakthrough down the road to "solve" this growing problem is sheer unfounded speculation. We know that given the rate of deposition of this material, there's no way we can eventually "jettison" the stuff into outer space. We're stuck with this poison, essentially, forever.
The unfolding disaster in Japan, following the compromise of several seaside nuclear power generation plants along its Eastern seabord, from earthquake and tsunami, has proven that any "confidence" we may have had about the presumed safety of this plant technology is imprudent and unfounded on reality.
Officials speaking on behalf of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear generation plant in California, asked to respond to the probable risks of a parallel incident here, responded with contempt that "our facility is built to withstand any seismic event up to 7.0 on the Richter Scale," and pooh-poohed the dangers of a similar disaster occurring there. And yet the whole California coastline is right within the "ring of fire" fault lines of the tectonic plates, where earthquakes, volcanic activity, and related phenomena are inevitable. We do not yet have--and may never have--the means to predict accurately when or where such events are going to occur. As I speak, we may be on the verge of a seismic event anywhere between Los Angeles and Seattle, which would endanger the lives of millions, and utterly bring to ruin the works of man over thousands of square miles. It is irresponsible, given what we know about the risks of handling and managing radioactive materials--among the most dangerous and resistant materials, right up there with Anthrax and the Ebola Virus--to believe that the "trade-off" of risk versus benefit, would justify the construction of any more such power plants in the immediate future (100 years).
If science were to advance to a stage that permitted us to generate nuclear power without creating the mountains of intractable waste associated with our current technology, that might be one argument in its favor. But prudence dictates that the simplest road to energy "self-reliance" and a moderate temperance of our consumption of the planet's limited reserve, is to reduce our demand. Advocates of those who want to reduce the advance of global warming suggest that a switch from fossil fuels to nuclear power is a "transitional" strategy to husband humanity into the next phase of its development. But if demand keeps outstripping supply at the current rate, no amount of conservation or elaboration of available sources is going to be able to meet it.
The single central force driving consumption on the planet is population. The high levels of consumption of resource associated with highly developed societies, such as the United States, are unsustainable, especially if that model is replicated in other parts of the world. Human greed and desire being what they are, it's unreasonable to presume that people around the world, seeking to enjoy the prosperity of the West, are likely to voluntarily "moderate" their demands and expectations in the interests of prudent regard for the future. People are selfish, and can always be counted upon to postpone difficult decisions and sacrifice in exchange for temporary gains and pleasures.
We know from ecology that the biomass on the surface of the earth is a finite, interconnected and inter-operative system. As we eat away at, consume, and befoul that system, the effects will multiply and spread throughout. If we go down the road of nuclear power generation, we can expect increasing numbers of "incidents" or "accidents." And given our limited ability to handle the problems associated with it, particularly the growing mass of waste, we are promising our descendants that the burden we place on their shoulders will significantly reduce their chances for a viable life on this planet. It's a promise we shouldn't be making.
The Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami are expected to have a sharp effect on public opinion in the rest of the world, about the desirability of expanding our investment in nuclear power. If we are prudent, and careful, it is possible that people may finally acknowledge, given the choices between greatly increased risk, and moderation of demand, that the second option is, at least for the immediate future, the sensible one.
Let us hope that this unfortunate disaster in Japan becomes the occasion for a soul-searching reexamination of our commitment to a growth-oriented energy policy. That would be the best outcome of all. Disasters often cause such reappraisals. The price we pay for not learning from defeat and failure is more defeats and failures. Ultimately, a constantly expanding population, accompanied by a constantly expanding economy (GDP) can't be sustained. We can have a time of reckoning, or we can ignore the evidence and go on pretending.