In August, just months following the tsunami-induced crisis at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, the 2011 World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs gathered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two Japanese cities destroyed in 1945 by atom bombs, becoming forever linked to the birth of nuclear weapons and the nuclear age. The world conference was formed in 1995 to work toward a nuclear-weapon ban and foster solidarity and support for A-bomb survivors and victims of nuclear disasters.
A few of the 70,000 victims of the Fukushima disaster joined us at the August meeting, riveting the attendees with first-hand accounts of the devastating effects of radioactive contamination. According to the reports delivered by these eyewitnesses, nearly 300,000 Fukushima children continue to live in wretched conditions, continuously exposed to the dangers of radioactivity. The health hazards of radioactivity are far deadlier to children than the effects of radiation on adults. Annual blood tests are now a life-preserving necessity to track the potential onset of disease.
Because of soil contamination, one-eighth of Fukushima’s soil can never be plowed again, and the consumption of crops grown on such plots is strictly forbidden. Many local companies have gone bankrupt, while 20,000 individual proprietors are on the brink of insolvency. The Tokyo Electric Power Company recently laid off 7,400 employees due to the cash settlements it will pay to the victims of the nuclear accident. Though the company is still afloat, it’s expected to soon go under due to its enormous capital investment in nuclear power, which now faces an uncertain fate in Japan and elsewhere.
At the risk of being melodramatic, the ripple effects of Fukushima go well beyond northern Japan. Clearly, nuclear accidents have become global events. Though fully 25 years have passed since the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine during the former Soviet Union, residents still cannot pick the mushrooms growing in certain parts of southern Germany due to radiation damage carried by the wind. Radiation knows no geographic borders. If a nuclear accident occurs on China’s shores, the citizens of Korea and Japan are inevitably vulnerable to radioactivity.
Even ignoring the numerous environmental risks, nuclear power doesn’t make sense on a pure dollars-and-cents analysis. Nuclear power simply isn’t economical when you factor the impact of indirect expenses and fees, and thus can’t compete in an open, unsubsidized market for electricity. More often than not, in fact, taxpayers are forced to foot the bill for radioactive waste disposal and storage. Costs for insurance coverage of nuclear energy facilities have become astronomical. And the costs to shutter a nuclear plant after it has passed its life expectancy nearly equal the construction costs of building the plant in the first place.
Like many, we believe the only rational alternative to fill the void likely to be left by waning interest in nuclear power is greater investment in and accelerated production of natural, renewable energy, such as solar and wind, to augment what’s produced globally by fossil fuels. The amount of wind power alone generated worldwide could expand by roughly 30 percent annually, based on most conservative estimates. Denmark already generates one-fourth of its power from wind, while three German states meet nearly 60 percent of their needs from this ever-pervasive source. In Iowa, which is the US benchmark for wind-power investment, wind is generating about one-fifth of the state’s energy needs.
A report in Science magazine contends that the Chinese could increase the country’s current output by a factor of 16 from wind-generated electricity. A single wind-generating complex in Gansu Province in northwestern China will, when completed, have 38,000 megawatts of generating capacity, enough to supply the total electricity needs of entire countries like Poland and Egypt.
Such clean, renewable energy sources should continue to get the bulk of our new capital investments in power production. From the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania to Chernobyl to Fukushima, nuclear power has proven to be unpredictable and risky at best. Physical structures built by man are inherently vulnerable to the forces of mother nature, particularly amid more extreme storms and weather patterns globally and instability caused by the earth’s ever-shifting tectonic plates.
We fully realize this is a radical thought for many, but our experience in northern Japan illustrates that even incremental investment in nuclear power threatens the very existence of human civilization as we know it. The Fukushima disaster – which now stands, at least in Japan, as a new generation’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki – should once and for all drive global society firmly down a nuclear-free energy path.
Lester R. Brown is a US environmental analyst, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, and president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Yul Choi is founder and president of the Korea Green Foundation. He was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1995 for the movement against toxic and nuclear contamination.