Breaking up the nuclear family

It’s time for the world’s largest economy – the US – to learn from Japan and Germany, and ditch nuclear power.

Members of Japanese government panel to investigate accident at Fukushima nuclear power plant, inspect damaged building housing No.3 reactor at TEPCO''s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant
All of Japan's commercial nuclear reactors are now idle after reeling from multiple meltdowns [REUTERS]

New York, NY – In the wake of last year’s devastating nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima, both Japan and Germany – the third and fourth largest economies in the world – have radically turned away from nuclear power generation to meet their energy needs.

In Japan, still reeling from the impact of multiple meltdowns, all of the country’s commercial reactors are now idle. Although Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is appealing for public support to restart at least some of plants – most immediately two reactors at the O’hi nuclear plant in western Japan – many Japanese remain rightly sceptical of their government’s ability to adequately oversee the country’s troubled but still powerful nuclear industry.

In the wake of Japan’s ongoing Fukushima disaster, Germany abruptly shut half of its operating nuclear plants.

Even though Noda claims Japan can not maintain its current living standards without nuclear power and that national security dictates the country not rely too heavily on imported oil and natural gas, any permanent restart of nuclear facilities will be opposed by most Japanese citizens at least until their leaders vastly improve their oversight of nuclear plants – and radically alter the current system of too-tight links between regulators and utilities, such as the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the operator of the Fukushima plants.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the Japan’s ongoing Fukushima disaster, Germany abruptly shut half of its operating nuclear plants, while promising to phase out the others and cease all nuclear power generation by 2022. Renewable energy sources – including solar, wind power and biomass plants – now produce about 20 per cent of the country’s electricity, a share that is increasing as a result of government subsidies and investment incentives. Solar power generation alone reached a new record last month when it produced about 10 per cent of the country’s overall electricity, thanks in part to a continuing boom in new solar panel installations. German renewable energy sources should generate 30 per cent of the country’s electricity by 2022 – and as much as 80 per cent by 2050.

Unsafe and unnecessary

Other European states, some with smaller but still sizable economies (including Italy, Belgium and Austria) have also pledged either to eliminate nuclear power entirely or at least to stop building new nuclear plants. Before Fukushima,  advanced industrialised nations were thought to be able to safely generate electricity through nuclear power; post-Fukushima, that assurance melted down along with the reactors. Before Fukushima, it was widely believed that nuclear power generation was necessary to maintain an advanced society and way of life; post-Fukushima, we see that the total elimination of nuclear plants is not only possible but highly desirable.

The reality is that both Japan and Germany’s societies are still functioning well [without nuclear power].

It’s time for the world’s largest economy – that of the United States – to learn from the Japanese and Germans and to emulate them by ditching nuclear power once and for all. Experience now shows that nuclear power generation is both unsafe and unnecessary – not to mention the disturbing fact that no one has yet come up with a solution to the ongoing dilemma of what to do with the thousands of tons of long-lasting, highly radioactive “spent fuel” – aka nuclear waste – still piled up at reactors all over the world, including of course, at the still volatile Fukushima site.

Although Prime Minister Noda recently went on national television to tell citizens there, “Japanese society cannot function if we stop or try to do without nuclear power generation,” the reality is that both Japan and Germany’s societies are still functioning well in its absence. The United States could – and should – follow suit and begin to phase out its dangerous and unnecessary reliance on nuclear power. It’s time for President Obama to turn away at long last from his silly but persistent pipe dream of a “nuclear renaissance” in the United States and begin to move instead to a “No Nukes” future of clean, safe and renewable energy.

Rory O’Connor is the author of Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology from the Manhattan Project to Fukushima, and most, recently, Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands, and Killing Traditional Media.