Thursday, March 24, 2011

Nuclear crisis in Japan: more lessons

Japan's problems continued with another quake hitting this week.
I know I wrote about the nuclear disaster in Japan last week, and I know many of you are ready to move on to the next 'big story', whether that be Wikileaks-comes-to-India or the war in Libya.  Still I think it's important for us to revisit what's going on in Japan because it is so easy to learn the wrong lessons from it. And I promise to be quick and not too technical.

First, most of us have learned or been reminded of the fact that nuclear power is not safe. The guy cutting my hair said so this weekend, as did at least two auto walas.  Most people see that if things could go this wrong in a Japanese nuclear plant, there is a good chance they could go wrong here also. I remind people that anyone who followed the incident last year when radioactive trash ended up in a west Delhi scrap market knows that Indian authorities are simply not capable of monitoring the nuclear industry effectively (yes, I said that last week, but it bears saying again)

But the problem with the automated--and correct--'nuclear is dangerous' response is that the other major sources of energy--coal and oil--are also dangerous. VERY dangerous. Does anyone remember that spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year? Deadly and environmentally destructive. Oil is getting more dangerous to extract because it is getting harder to find. If we keep using oil like we are, we are bound to have more big spills in environmentally sensitive places, because much of the world's remaining oil is in environmentally sensitive places.  Simple, really. And coal, well coal is also very, very dangerous. In fact, George Monbiot over at the Guardian argues convincingly that for a variety of reasons coal kills far more people every year than nuclear energy. (Of course there are the climate-change related deaths, but coal plants also release more radiation than nuclear plants--assuming the nuclear plants don't melt down.)

The only way out of this mess is for us to drastically reduce consumption of both energy and things. That's going to be painful, but it's got to happen. Except it won't--not with the political leadership we have. The western world seems happy to blame India and China for oil scarcity, even though they've historically consumed most of it. And Indian politicians are quick to use the fact that we have a lot of poor people to excuse the over-consumption of our super-elite. Not a pretty picture.

Oh yes, one more thing. When we talk about green building, the events in Japan remind us that responsible construction--whether it be low-income housing or high-end malls--must be earthquake-safe. As I said last week, far, far more people die from badly built buildings than from nuclear meltdowns. And the solution to that problem is not as expensive as we think--especially considering what we have to lose through inaction. 


  1. It is evident that Nuclear energy is dangerous,Coal and diesel / petrol is also harmful.Damming of rivers and canal irrigation is also dangerous.The only way out is to adopt the means which was used by our ancetors.

  2. @rvalshishth-- you may well be right; we certainly can't keep doing what we are doing now.

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