A return to Middle Ages

After the loss of 10 million American lives in the Three-Mile Island calamity in 1979, the death of two billion in the Chernobyl holocaust

After the loss of 10 million American lives in the Three-Mile Island calamity in 1979, the death of two billion in the Chernobyl holocaust in 1986, and now the abandonment of all of northern Japan following the death of millions in last year’s Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, it is hardly surprising that the world’s biggest users of nuclear power are shutting their plants down.

Oh, wait a minute — This just in! Nobody died in the Three-Mile Island calamity, 28 plant workers were killed and 15 other people subsequently died of thyroid cancer in the Chernobyl holocaust, and nobody died in the Fukushima catastrophe. But they really are shutting their nuclear plants down.

They have already shut them down in Japan. All of the country’s 50 nuclear reactors were closed for safety checks after the tsunami damaged the Fukushima plant, and only two have reopened so far. The government has now promised to close every nuclear power plant in Japan permanently by 2040.

The new Japanese plan says that the country will replace nuclear energy with an eightfold increase in renewable energy (wind, solar, etc.), and “the development of sustainable ways to use fossil fuels.” But going from four per cent to 30 per cent renewables in the energy mix will take decades, and nobody has yet found an economically sustainable way to sequester the greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.

The truth is that as the Arctic sea ice melts and grain harvests are devastated by heat waves and drought, the world’s third-largest user of nuclear energy has decided to go back to emitting lots and lots of carbon dioxide.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised to close all the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022. She also promised to replace them with renewable power sources, of course, but the reality will be that the country burns more fossil fuels.

Even France, which has taken 80 per cent of its energy from nuclear power for decades with no problems, is joining the panic. President Francois Hollande’s new government has promised to lower the country’s dependence on nuclear energy to 50 per cent of the national energy mix.

He had to do it, even though closing down the nuclear plants will lead to a sharp rise in greenhouse gas emissions in precisely the period when the race to cut emissions and avoid a rise in average global temperature of more than two degrees C will be won or lost. Nuclear energy is a kind of witchcraft, and the public is frightened.

Fortunately, their superstitious fears are largely absent in more sophisticated parts of the world. Only four new nuclear reactors are under construction in the European Union, and only one in the United States, but there are 61 being built elsewhere. Over two-thirds of them are being built in the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), where economies are growing fast and governments are increasingly concerned about both pollution and climate change.

But it’s not enough to outweigh the closure of so many nuclear plants in the developed world: the price of nuclear fuel has collapsed in the last four years, and uranium mine openings and expansions have been cancelled.

More people die from coal pollution each day than have been killed by 50 years of nuclear power operations – and that’s just from lung disease. If you include future deaths from global warming due to burning fossil fuels, closing down nuclear power stations is sheer madness.

Welcome to the Middle Ages.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. Please let us know if you would like to see this column published regularly in the Rimbey Review. Email editor@rimbeyreview.com

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