Aerial view of Fukushima meltdown and explosion
Environmental problems are society's problems. Ultimately, society must address problems which arise from the consumption of resource, and of man's continuing expansion within this biosphere. We don't know if there are any other biospheres in the universe with similar characteristics, but it appears that given our natural limits, and the extent of present scientific knowledge, our planet is the only part of the universe where we can live, and over which we have any control.
Most of the the world's problems now are the result of overpopulation. The holding capacity of the earth for the human species is already well beyond practical limits. There is no question that in the short term humankind could continue to increase its numbers, and to spread out over more of the earth's surface for several more decades. People could "subsist"--that is, live on the edge of survival, in many areas that are considered marginal for habitation. We have the technology, and the earth's resources still exist in sufficient capacity to support such expansion.
The open question about that potential, however, is whether such a scenario is either desirable or necessary. If we accept as a given that human population will continue to grow, without any attempts to impose limits, then there are certain consequent factors in that equation. Given a human population growth constant, we will use up the available resources that exist on the planet--and many, many times faster--than if our demand (a growing population) were not accepted as a constant.
Right now, we know the earth is quickly running out of oil, natural gas, potable water, food, arable land. There's quite a bit of coal on the earth, but we haven't figured out how to utilize it in such a way that it doesn't create more problems than its vastly expanded use can justify. Nuclear fissionable materials also appear now to present far greater risks than their continued (or expanded) use could justify.
The Fukushima Nuclear Plant disaster has shown, once again, that humankind does not have sufficient control over nuclear power, to guarantee that such accidents will not happen in the future. The technology for constructing and running nuclear plants clearly is still not up to the task of making them "fail-safe"--in the phrase made famous by the Eugene Burdick novel, and the movie that was made based on it.
What the Fukushima Nuclear Plant disaster shows is that the probable risk is greater than any possible re-definition of "need" that might be introduced into the decision-making process that society must go through to decide whether such projects are feasible. The equation is so heavily weighted on the harm side, that no amount of "demand" could possibly outweigh it.
What we now know is that the area inside the danger zone surrounding the Fukushima plant will not be usable for the foreseeable future. Initially, the Japanese authorities declared that the area of uninhabitability was only a 50 mile radius around the plant. But recent news reports and disclosures have revealed that the danger area is much larger, perhaps as much as 150 miles. No human habitation, no agricultural use, no recreational use--no use of any kind will be safe for as long as the radioactive material persists in that zone. It is likely that several tens of thousands of those already exposed within this 150 mile radius will have significant health issues for the rest of their lives.
The implication of the Fukushima disaster is that nuclear plants are too dangerous for human use, too dangerous for any kind of life at all. They're too dangerous because there is no presently known method for making them truly safe. Nuclear fuel of the kind our technology is designed to use, is too hot to handle. It's too poisonous, too unwieldy, too dirty. Aside from the long term unresolved issues of disposition of the dirty waste it produces, we don't have the technology to handle it safely enough to justify the risks it presents. The Fukushima plant failed because of a tsunami, which was caused by a major earthquake. Natural disasters are bad enough, and the dangers posed by safety failures have been largely discounted by those whose interest lies in promoting their use. But nuclear plants are relatively short-lived anyway. As presently constructed, they only have a life of 25-50 years. But once a site is "decommissioned" it presents a whole new set of unresolvable problems. A nuclear facility can't just be closed, dismantled and the land returned to other uses. The whole plant becomes a permanent fixture on the landscape, since there is no practical way to "dispose" of its contaminated parts. We know, now, that you can't simply "bury" nuclear waste, because there is literally no way to contain it permanently, and nuclear waste lives on as active poison for hundreds, even thousands, of years. The more of it you produce, the worse the problem gets. And the technology of "storage" is as problematic as the flawed technology of initial use. If the initial safety concerns of running nuclear plants weren't bad enough, the elephant in the room is the disposition of the "waste" that is constantly growing--and that elephant can't be ignored, or kept in a corner, forever. There is presently a stalemate regarding the ultimate solution to the waste problem, but that's not a waiting game we can win.
In 1985, I and my family spent a year living in Misawa, Japan. Misawa is in the Aomori Prefecture, up near the northeast corner of the main island, right underneath Hokkaido. At that time, there weren't any nuclear plants within a nearby radius of jeopardy. But in 1989, the Tomari Nuclear Plant was commissioned, on the western edge of Hokkaido, and in 2005 the Higashidori Nuclear Plant, up near the northeastern tip of Aomori Prefecture, was brought on board. If we were living in Misawa today, we'd be well within the possible danger zone of a nuclear accident at the Higashidori Plant. Since the Fukushima accident, Japanese scientists have raised concerns about the proximity of the Higashidori Plant near known earthquake faults. Japan is probably the most earthquake prone country in the world, as its land mass lies right at the edge of the tectonic plates of the Western Pacific. In California, we have the same geological condition, as the whole West Coast of the U.S. rides along the eastern edge of the Pacific tectonic plates. Right now, the nearest nuclear power plant to where we live in the Bay Area is the Diablo Canyon facility, about 200 miles away from this spot, as the crow flies. But it's little comfort to anyone living even this close to such a facility, knowing the problems a melt-down or explosion would cause. Nuclear power plant failures have devastating consequences hundreds of miles away, as Chernobyl demonstrated, and their effects literally last centuries. At this point, we really don't have any accurate data on the long-range effects of such catastrophes, but our best speculations are dire. For the millions of people who live within close proximity to such facilities, the probability of such accidents is disquieting, to say the least. As our investment in nuclear energy evolves, it seems not just likely, but inevitable, that there will be more "Fukushima" accidents in the future, with terrible consequences for humankind.
If nuclear plants are too dangerous, then they must be abandoned.
As recently as 2010, members of the Congress, and others in positions of authority and influence in this country, were again, after a hiatus of some years following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, openly suggesting a resumption of our investment in the construction of new nuclear facilities. For those of us who remembered (after only 25 years) what the Chernobyl disaster told us about nuclear power plant feasibility, these discussions were like a haunting echo. Public opinion had turned resolutely away from nuclear power as an option, after the Soviet debacle, but here, once more, the energy companies and their friends were again attempting to seduce the public into considering the possibility of building more nuclear plants, as a way of meeting the growing power demands of the 21st Century. Nuclear plants could now be built more securely, and in the end everyone "knew" that we had no choice, that demand would eventually force society to reconsider nuclear power as the genie in the bottle.
Yet it seems clear that nuclear energy is something we don't want to "play with" for the time being. The proliferation of nuclear weapons appears to be on a track that we can't control, since it can be conducted mostly in secret. It seems entirely likely that any modern nation can build nuclear bombs, because the technology is well known. But nuclear power generation is another matter.
A great to-do is being made over Iran's supposed intention secretly to build a nuclear bomb, with which it could threaten its neighbors (presumably Israel), and fend off external threats to its autonomy. Iran insists it just wants--indeed, has the sovereign right--to exploit nuclear power for its own "peaceful" uses. The possibility is being treated as if just wanting to build nuclear plants was a harmless, innocent, and defensible option. After all, nuclear power plants are already online in most of the world.
Again, nuclear power is only one problem the world faces. Why do we keep turning to nuclear energy, as a last resort for the generation of power? The modern world runs on energy. Lots of energy. And that need is a beast that demands to be fed. But the increasing levels of consumption are not sustainable. Accepting the notion that the growth of population is a constant is the first part of the energy bargain. The other part is the assumption of the necessity for an increasingly power-rich culture.
Throughout most of the post-War period, there's been an underlying assumption that the prosperity that the West enjoyed could, should, and would be exported to the rest of the world. In other words, the profligate over-indulgence of energy-use in Europe and America and Japan, ought to be copied and followed throughout the world. No one questioned whether having vastly increased power usage on the planet was really a good idea. Of course it was a good idea, because it made life so much more convenient! But the prosperity paradigm that was made out of the industrial revolution, the factory system, and the technological advances of the last two centuries, was built without regard for limits. The notion of more and more growth, both of population and economic systems, went mostly unquestioned. If one house and one car were good, then why not two houses, two cars? If one child could grow up to become rich and prosperous, why not two, or four, or six children? More consumers meant growth, and growth was always good, in economic terms.
But unlimited growth and unlimited exploitation can't proceed indefinitely. There are limits, and we're finding them. One of those limits should be not using nuclear power generation. If the world doesn't contain enough "clean" energy, then perhaps it's time to consider the demand side of the equation. If a nation cannot provide sufficient fresh water, food, power and other necessities, for itself, then perhaps the answer is to slow the demand.
Supply side economics posits a condition in which there is always more population, more resource, and more room to grow. But the "supply" side is finite, not unlimited. Humankind can't simply invent and discover and create more supply. What science tells us is that the earth is an entropic entity; it's a cooling ball. The sun too is a cooling ball, but it's going to take it a good deal longer than life on earth will ever live, to see it burn itself out. In the meantime, humankind will long since have used up all the "available" sources of energy on this planet.
If all this sounds apocalyptic, perhaps it's because we're complacent. The U.S. is now a net exporter of petroleum. Newt Gingrich's complaints about the Obama Administration's performance on the question of domestic energy policy notwithstanding, we've been reminded that demand always drives policy, not the other way around. The reason we're using less energy than we produce is that our economy must be slowing down, and that's exactly what's happening. The "Third World" grew up and decided to replicate the industrial paradigm we thought belonged exclusively to The West.
If the U.S. is to lead again, in anything, it shouldn't be in energy consumption per capita, because increasing energy use is a recipe for disaster. Building more nuclear power plants is a disaster. Burning more petroleum, burning more coal, burning more of anything is a disaster. If we want to measure the quality of life, we could start by reducing demand, which means in supply side terms, reducing population. China is leading the way with its one-child family policies. People will say that overpopulation will self-modulate once we solve the "other problems" the world has. But population is THE PROBLEM now. Solve that one, and you move the equation in the right direction. We can't build a world on the excess consumption formula, and then hope it will moderate its demand later; we won't ever get to reduced demand, if we allow the world to turn into a burning ant-hill first.
The most intelligent thing America can do now is show the way through quality of life--to lead by example. That needn't mean surrendering any of our self-defense, or capitulating on trade, or any of those nightmare consequences. A healthy society is one where we aren't all sitting on our butts, surrounded by gadgets, overwhelmed by commodities, and spending the world's energy at the fastest possible rate. Living a healthy life is actually cheaper than living sick. Walking to the corner store is cheaper for you, cheaper for society, cleaner, more relaxing, and less wasteful. Cheap portability, as an end in itself, is really pretty stupid. But the deeper implications of use don't necessarily revolve around rich use. The real culprit is demand, and how we respond to demands, both necessary and artificial. By constantly encouraging over-use and cheap consumption, as a spur to growth, we make nightmares come true. An 8-lane highway can handle more cars than a 6-lane highway, but every time you add an extra two lanes, you encourage more growth along the entire course of the thoroughfare.
Would it make sense to continue to encourage growth around the Greater Bay Area, if that necessarily meant that we'd need to bring on an additional half-dozen more nuclear power plants within a 50 mile radius of San Francisco? How stupid would that be? And yet, using demand as a generator of regional power development makes such eventualities inevitable, as long as the constant growth paradigm goes unquestioned.
The fewer people there are in the world, the richer we all are, not just in what the earth's bounty can provide, but in terms of the way we live. Having two children is materially better than having six, no matter how rich you are in other ways. As animals competing in a Darwinian universe, our sex drives and our natural tendency to increase were hard-wired into our bodies. We're constructed to reproduce. Our natural life-span in a pre-"civilized" condition is just long enough to enable us to accomplish that. People aren't generally designed to live more than about 35 years. But humankind has tipped the balance of its sustainability so far in the direction of artificial exploitation, that we've reproduced far beyond our means. We're eating the planet alive.
The advantages to society of rapid, uncontrolled growth are temporary, and mostly confined to those who stand to benefit initially from the ramping up. Landowners, developers, the building trades, the residual tax benefits--they initially pump some capital into the economy, but the costs that result to the environment, and to the quality of life, quickly make those gains look like cheap sacrifices to greed. As we chew up open space, and tie up more water and resources to feed the growth monster, all of society loses. The rich can wall themselves off in remote places or secure facilities, but that disequilibrium is only a temporary phenomenon.
We can moderate that drive, or suffer the consequences brought on by the efficient manipulation of the odds. We still have a choice. Nuclear power isn't the answer--it never was. The answer was in weaning ourselves off the over-indulgence in unnecessary growth. Because real prosperity doesn't come from growth. Anyone who tells you that is living a lie.
View of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant