The first anniversary of Japan’s nuclear disaster is a good time to take stock. Opponents and proponents of nuclear power are doing so, and they have come to the same conclusion: “We were right all along.”
The meltdown at the Fukushima power plant is certainly grist for the mill of the anti-nuclear crowd. It forced the evacuation of 300,000 people and will cost as much as $250 billion to clean up, according to the Japan Center for Economic Research. If a natural disaster can trigger such a dangerous, disruptive and expensive crisis in a country as advanced as Japan, then it’s impossible to guarantee safety anywhere. Efforts to do the impossible will make nuclear power even more expensive and, by some analyses including that of the Worldwatch Institute, it already costs more than solar energy.
The technical and economic data, though, may offer less support for the anti-nuclear brigade than the images from Fukushima, including explosions, mass evacuations to escape the deadly and invisible threat of radiation, and workers in white safety suits. The pictures reinforce the visceral fear that radioactivity is just too hot to handle.
Proponents of nuclear plants haven’t exactly been comforted by Fukushima, but they argue that a cool look at the situation actually supports their case. After all, the damage from a near worst-case scenario at a badly managed, ageing plant is proving to be quite bearable. This case is strengthened by the Japanese government’s minimum estimate of direct clean up costs – something like $15 billion, spread out over several years. That’s less than 10 percent of the highest estimates of damage, and of the expected non-nuclear cost of the earthquake and tsunami which overwhelmed the Fukushima plant.
Besides, the pro-nukes say, the affected plant was too old to be relevant for future investment decisions. New plants are safer by design. Fukushima won’t significantly alter the result of the studies promoted by the World Nuclear Association, which conclude that atomic energy is relatively cheap. Enthusiasts, who have always dismissed atomic phobia as illogical and exaggerated, are quick to point out that Fukushima has nothing to do with Hiroshima. The chain of activities required to generate, say, coal-fired power can be shown to cost more lives, too.