No turning back

The Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan has global consequences for the industry.

By Jack Miles

"Germany's nuclear energy blunder" read the headline in a lead Washington Post editorial. "Panicked overreaction isn't the right response to the partial meltdown," it went on to say. In the New York Times, Alan Cowell sought a psychological explanation for Germany's "apocalyptic" decision to phase out nuclear power: "What is there in this land of 82 million people that has, over decades, bred an aversion to nuclear energy that seems unrivalled among its economic peers, defying its reputation for reasoned debate?"

Some mainstream American commentators complained that Germany would now be more dependent on Russian gas. Others faulted Chancellor Angela Merkel for caving in to the increasingly powerful Green party in a decision that would only make Germany more heavily dependent on carbon-emitting coal. Los Angeles Times columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote in tones of exasperated common sense: "The damaged reactors are ruined, but so what? .... Few skyscrapers in the United States can withstand a 9.0 earthquake—should we stop making tall buildings?"

Let us grant for the sake of argument that Germany is indeed freaked out. To what do we attribute this fall from grace and reason?

Could it perhaps have been the discovery of an actual freak—an earless rabbit born near Fukushima? If not the rabbit, could it have been the fear that, as after Chernobyl, radioactivity might enter the Japanese food chain—and the German food chain if a German plant went into meltdown? This has now happened in Japan: Radioactive spinach, tea leaves, milk, fish, and hay have been found as far away from ground zero as 135 kilometres. By now, millions of gallons of milk and unknown tons of fruit and vegetables have been dumped because they can no longer be sold safely or legally.

Germans are rightly proud of their delicious local beers, made from locally grown hops; each region boasts of its own; some individual towns do the same. Were they upset at the thought that their hops might no longer be safe for human consumption?

Germans like their sausages, too. Perhaps the prospect troubled them of someday hearing the news, as the Japanese have, that beef grown in a district of their country—11,660 square kilometres in area—is officially unfit for human consumption.

There are solutions to these problems, of course, as cooler heads at places like the Post might have reminded the Germans. When it was discovered that schoolyards in Fukushima Prefecture were irradiating children at the rate legal only for nuclear power plant workers, the government calmly sent in crews to scrape the topsoil off the schoolyards. Perhaps scraping the topsoil off the areas where the radioactive animals and vegetables come from will yet bring back Japanese agriculture and free Japan from the inconvenience it currently faces of having to raise its beef cattle indoors. Evidently no German leader thought to offer this reassurance to the anxious Volk.

If it was not one or more of these farm problems that sent the skittish Germans over the line, what else might have it been? Could it perhaps be the downward plunge of the Japanese stock market that spooked them, the flight of foreigners from Japan, the spectacle of corporate headquarters and foreign embassies being moved from Tokyo to locations farther from Fukushima, the imminent insolvency of a once mighty utility? Could German mothers perhaps have been panicked into apocalypticism by Tokyo's warning that the city's tap water was no longer safe for infants? Germany already has a low birth rate. It does not need to lose babies to nuclear water pollution.

Like the rest of us, Germans have a high regard for German engineering, but are engineers really in charge of the world's nuclear power plants in Japan or the United States or anywhere else? Is it primarily they who cry "Here, Boy!" when what is loping toward them is a large, black predator with burning green eyes?

Such we may guess were at least some of the fevered thoughts that fed into what the Post called Germany's blunder, a blunder that now—to the editorial board's presumed indignation—has been repeated by Japan itself, and, worse, is clearly advocated by more than one state in the American union itself, beginning with New York.

Whether the still unfolding Fukushima catastrophe proves historic or not for the future of nuclear power generation on the planet probably depends less on Germany's decision-making or even Washington's than on China's. With 104 operating nuclear power plants, the United States generates far more nuclear power in absolute terms than any other nation. However, China, which now has only 13 nuclear power plants, plans to have no fewer than 100 up and running no later than 2020. China's vast, massively state-subsidised plans have been put on hold since Fukushima, but so far they have not been cancelled, and they are clearly linked with global warming. The announcement of the 100-plant goal was made, significantly enough, not by a minister of energy but by Li Ganjie, Vice Minister of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, in June 2011.

There is no denying that all fossil fuels—coal, certainly, but also natural gas—contribute to global warming and air pollution. But that ongoing, cumulatively catastrophic environmental damage has to be reckoned against the sudden but permanent and equally catastrophic environmental damage that, as at Fukushima, several simultaneous nuclear meltdowns can occasion. Meanwhile, a gas-powered plant can be built for 40 per cent of the cost of a nuclear plan, and gas is cheap. China's regime surely has had such facts in mind all along, but it may now, more than before Fukushima, be reckoning with a social calculation as well. If and when China suffers a Fukushima-scale disaster, can its police state count on the same remarkable degree of solidarity with its citizenry that Japan's government, despite Prime Minister Kan's personal unpopularity, has so impressively enjoyed? In that sense, can Communist China really risk big-time nuclear power? Many have claimed that it was Chernobyl, more than any other single event, that brought down the Communist regime in the Soviet Union.

Whatever the answer to that question, China's decision to proceed or not with its hundred of reactors will profoundly affect energy policies around the world. Australia, for example, energy sufficient with its large reserves of coal and gas, has contemplated building as many as 25 nuclear power plants; but as a major exporter of uranium to China, Australia cannot be unaffected by what happens to its leading customer. If China becomes a vast laboratory for experimentation with nuclear power and makes major technological breakthroughs, what would be more natural than for it to overtake and replace the United States as an exporter of nuclear technology, perhaps beginning with its uranium supplier? By the same token, if China follows Japan and Germany and backs away from its towering nuclear ambitions, 2011 may be seen in retrospect as a turning point in industrial history and even in the history of the human habitat. Either way, a game with global consequences has been squarely joined, and there is no turning back.