On the second anniversary of the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Craig Morris talks about what – despite the flood of information – still needs to be better understood and why the debate about our future energy supply should include a peace dividend.
The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami affected millions of Japanese, who responded with admirable solidarity and dignity. The roughly 320,000 victims still living in temporary housing are on our minds today.
But as impressive as the country’s reaction to the natural disaster was, the government and TEPCO (the Daiichi nuclear plant operator) have been criticized for their handling of the nuclear disaster – as have the Japanese in general for their strong commitment to nuclear power even as they completely reject nuclear weapons.
Likewise, Germany has faced outright ridicule for Chancellor Merkel’s decision to shut down nearly half of its nuclear capacity within a week of the earthquake. Did she not flip-flop on the issue after extending nuclear plant commissions less than a year before, an editor at Scientific American recently asked me. Yes, but it should be better known that Angela Merkel has a PhD in physics. When she says Fukushima changed her risk assessment, we would be foolish to accuse her of not understanding nuclear power.
Warning signs written in stone
Germans are not so sure they are better engineers than the Japanese. But in addition to the risks during operation, how can we put up signs marking waste sites so that people thousands of years from now (who may not speak any language used today) will be scared away rather than drawn to the sites?
Japan’s experience with tsunamis shows how difficult the task will be. The country has hundreds of centuries-old stones along parts of its shoreline with warnings not to build below them due to the risk of a tsunami. Some are heeded, most not – even though they generally remain legible. After World War II, coastal towns became especially common; at the time, mankind believed it increasingly had control over nature, with nuclear power being an excellent example. We are not so sure anymore.
The peace dividend
Almost 60 years ago, US President Eisenhower launched the Atoms for Peace program, which promoted the peaceful use of nuclear fission, which the world had associated mainly with two terrible bombs. The program proliferated nuclear power not only in Western countries, but also – unbelievably from our perspective today – in Iran and Pakistan.
We now struggle to rein in the beast we unleashed. In 2001, as a representative of the International Solar Energy Society, I was asked why ISES did not promote the spread of nuclear power around the world. I referred the questioner to then-President George W. Bush, who was concerned about Iran’s new nuclear plant in Bushehr.
As US President, Bush Sr. called for a peace dividend; military expenditures were to be reduced, leaving a lot of money available for peaceful investments. As US journalist Mark Hertsgaard pointed out an interview with me in 2006, we are still waiting for that peace dividend in the US.
In a recent presentation given in Japan, Harald Neitzel of the German Environmental Ministry speaks of a “peace dividend” from renewables (PDF). The German Renewable Energy Act (EEG) speaks of “avoiding conflicts over fossil fuels” in its first sentence. It should be better known that Germans see investments in renewables as an alternative to military expenses – one more reason why they were willing to go renewable when the price was still high.