The voodoo maths of nuclear energy opponents
Gwynne Dyer says abandoning nuclear energy before renewable sources can be sustainably tapped just means we'll burn more fossil fuel
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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 … nobody died in the Three Mile Island calamity, some 30 people were killed and 15 others subsequently died of thyroid cancer in the Chernobyl holocaust, and nobody died in the Fukushima catastrophe. In fact, northern Japan has not been evacuated. But never mind all that. 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 wants to close every plant in Japan permanently by 2040, though pressure by business and community groups means it has been forced to reconsider. Replacing the missing nuclear energy with an increase in renewable energy, as Japan intended, 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 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 Dr Angela Merkel has promised to close all its nuclear reactors by 2022. She also promised to replace them with renewable power sources, of course, but the reality there will also be that the country burns more fossil fuels.
Even France, which has taken most of its power from nuclear plants for decades without the slightest problem, 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. But you can see why it had to do it. After all, nuclear energy is a kind of witchcraft, and the public is frightened.
The greens prattle about replacing nuclear power with renewables. But for now, closing 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 2 degrees Celsius will be won or lost.
Fortunately, such 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 US, 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, at least in the short term.
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.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist