- Nuclear Power after Fukushima 2011:Buddhist and Promethean Perspectives
During 2010 many environmentalists previously opposed to nuclear power were deciding, in the face of anthropogenic climate change from burning fossil fuels, that the only way to prevent runaway global warming would be to build more nuclear power plants after all.1 There are risks involved—though fewer than with carbon-based sources of energy.2 When one compares the detrimental effects of nuclear power with those of burning fossil fuel, it is clear that the human injury and death toll (not to mention environmental devastation) resulting from the former have been nothing compared to the damage caused by the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels, owing to mining accidents, oil spills, and so forth—not to mention the massive carbon dioxide emissions.
On the other hand, the problem of how and where to store the growing amount of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, which remains deadly for many thousands of years, has yet to be solved. Costly security measures have to be taken to guard against terrorist attacks and theft of materials usable for nuclear devices. When full safety features are included, nuclear power plants become ever more expensive to build, and the costs of insuring them against accidents are so prohibitive that governments have to subsidize them, which they are increasingly unwilling to do.
Not long after the explosions and meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in March 2011, two dismal world records were announced: in 2010 we discharged a record amount of carbon dioxide (more than 30 gigatons) into the atmosphere, mainly by burning fossil fuels, and, as a direct consequence, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere (as measured at the Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Hawai'i) reached a record level of 395 parts per million. These figures suggest that we are continuing to generate a rise in global average temperatures that is already destroying the livelihoods of millions and will soon jeopardize the lives of hundreds of millions more.
As a consequence of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, Japan—long a leading promoter of nuclear power—has begun to enforce some widely neglected safety regulations and is seriously reconsidering its reliance on nuclear energy. China has put construction of [End Page 89] new power plants on hold. Other nations (such as Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Thailand, and Malaysia) have decided to phase out or cancel plans to build more nuclear power stations. Yet the primary motivations remain unclear, since people's attitudes toward the dangers of nuclear radiation are anything but rational—as evidenced by the mass departure of foreigners from Japan after the catastrophe at Fukushima, when health dangers beyond the vicinity of the power station were minimal.
In Europe, the reaction to the Fukushima disaster has clearly been aggravated by memories of the catastrophe at Chernobyl in 1986. While Chernobyl was a more widely destructive event than Fukushima, releasing a much greater amount of radioactivity, its effects on human health continue to generate disagreement. According to the third report on the effects of the Chernobyl catastrophe issued by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), among the 134 plant staff and emergency workers who suffered acute radiation syndrome (ARS), the condition proved fatal for twenty-eight of them. By 2006 another nineteen ARS survivors died, although their deaths were not directly attributable to the effects of ionizing radiation. Although the report attributes "a substantial fraction" of the six thousand cases of thyroid cancer in people who were children at the time of the accident to their consumption of milk contaminated with iodine-131, only fifteen cases had proved fatal by 2005, some twenty years later.3 The death toll, then, was fewer than fifty.
By contrast, a study by a group of scientists from Belarus, Russia, and the Ukraine, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, estimates the number of deaths attributable to the meltdown at around 980,000—almost twenty thousand times greater than the estimate by the UN scientific committee.4 What are we to make of this vast discrepancy, especially since the UNSCEAR report "was prepared in close cooperation with...