Last year, a small majority in Japan supported restarting idled nuclear reactors for the first time since the Fukushima catastrophe, according to a poll in the country’s top business newspaper, the Nikkey. Some 53% of people said nuclear reactors should restart if safety can be ensured, while 38% said they should remain shut.
Even more surprising, studies showed that only one person died from the radiation caused by the Fukushima incident. This means that the biggest nuclear incident since Chernobyl has actually resulted in just one direct death, and the concerned population is already ready to move on from this trauma. Given this, how can a country like Germany, which is unaffected by seismic risk unlike Japan, stand by its choice of banning nuclear energy?
In broader terms, why are we so scared of nuclear energy? And are we right to be?
Let’s start from the beginning. Since Nagasaki and Hiroshima, our collective history associates nuclear energy with mass destruction. Christopher Nolan’s most recent movie is just another proof of the phenomenon. One quote from Oppenheimer most often used on social media is the following: “Now I am become death, the Destroyer of worlds”. The meaning of the quote seems pretty clear — Oppenheimer has personally unleashed a supreme power that can destroy the world (though this might not be a totally accurate reading of the original quote from the Bhagavad Gita). In a sense, the reputation is fair: nuclear weapons did change the geopolitics of the world, and the way we conducted war. But the problem is that we conflate nuclear energy and the atomic bomb.
So, if we now look strictly into nuclear energy, what is the public opinion? What does history remember? While nuclear disasters are catastrophic, it’s essential to acknowledge that we have made significant progress in managing nuclear energy. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986, for instance, resulted in approximately 4,000 immediate deaths and long-term health issues for those exposed to radiation. However, modern reactor designs, such as the Generation IV reactors, incorporate advanced safety features, and are therefore significantly safer.
Yet, assuring people that the new technology is safer is not always enough, and our emotions often cloud our judgment when a catastrophe has occurred. I interviewed Takeshi, a 24-year-old Japanese exchange student from NUS, who showed that opinions on nuclear energy in Japan are complex and evolving after Fukushima. Takeshi initially expressed strong opposition to nuclear energy, stating, “The first year after the Fukushima accident, when I became old enough to have an opinion on the subject, like many Japanese people, I was strongly against nuclear energy. The impact [of Fukushima] was terrible, and it had a deep emotional impact on the nation.”
However, Takeshi’s perspective has evolved over the years. He now recognises the need to address Japan’s reliance on costly and environmentally harmful fossil fuels, and he acknowledges the global concern of climate change. Takeshi reflects on this change: “My viewpoint has changed over the years. I studied a bit of geopolitics, so I began to consider Japan’s reliance on fossil fuels to fill the gap left by the closure of nuclear plants. I read articles, listened to politics… I know that it’s costly and has significant environmental consequences.”
Takeshi emphasises the importance of safety, stating, “I believe nuclear energy can have a role in Japan’s energy mix, but only if safety is the top priority.” He also suggests a balanced approach, indicating that new nuclear plant construction should be “evaluated on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the latest advances in nuclear safety measures.”
In summary, Takeshi is in favour of nuclear energy under certain conditions, specifically emphasising stringent safety measures and a simultaneous investment in renewable energy sources to diversify Japan’s energy supply. Speaking with him showed me the nuanced and evolving perspectives among young Japanese citizens regarding nuclear energy, considering both the traumatic history of Fukushima and the pressing need for sustainable energy solutions.
Regarding the Japan Government’s stance on nuclear energy, it seems that the general trend goes towards restarting the nuclear program. In an interview from December 2022, Tatsuya Terazawa, Chairman and Chief Executive Office, The Institute of Energy Economics, Japan (IEEJ), shares that Japan’s Green Transformation (GX) plan aims to redeem nuclear as a key energy source. This decision is part of the country’s strategy to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and Prime Minister Kishida himself instructed “the government to explore the possibility of restarting 17 nuclear plants”. More significantly, this comes after almost 11 years of inaction following the Fukushima incident.
Japan is not the only one to acknowledge the benefits of this type of energy. Many experts, including climate scientist Dr Ken Caldeira, advocate for the use of nuclear energy as a crucial element in sustainable development. He points out that nuclear power can provide a stable source of low-carbon electricity, which is essential for combating climate change. Furthermore, the International Energy Agency (IEA) emphasises that without nuclear power, the world’s efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C would be nearly impossible.
Nuclear energy does not exist in a vacuum; we must also consider the risks associated with alternative energy sources. The health hazards of coal, for example, are well-documented. Air pollution from coal combustion is responsible for millions of premature deaths worldwide annually. A study by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that air pollution from burning fossil fuels causes 7 million deaths each year.
The dangers of fossil fuel extraction are also well-documented, as highlighted by incidents like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which led to 11 fatalities and extensive environmental damage. Oil spills are more frequent than we would like to admit, and they have disastrous consequences for our ecosystems and the livelihood of people relying on the resources of the sea. In 2022, the total volume of oil lost to the environment from tanker spills was approximately 15,000 tonnes. More than 14,000 tonnes of this can be attributed to three large incidents. These events emphasise the perils of relying solely on non-nuclear energy sources.
Then comes the increasing use of renewable energies. There is no doubt that they will shape our future, but they currently cannot fully meet the world’s energy demands. In 2021, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA) reported that renewable energy sources made up 29% of the global energy mix. Currently, other power sources are required to make up the shortfall, and for many countries, nuclear power remains an integral part of the energy mix. An illustration of that is the current energy mix of Germany: 44% renewable energy, 20% lignite, 11% coal, 14% gas and 6% nuclear.
Indeed, nuclear energy is a big point of divergence between the two leaders of the European Union. In 2011, following the Japanese catastrophe, former Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to fully abandon nuclear energy. This decision was criticised by its neighbouring countries, especially France whose energy strategy for the future strongly relies on nuclear energy.
The most frequent argument against Germany’s choice is that the nation is not subject to the same seismic risk as Japan. Japan is located on the famous “Ring of Fire,” an active seismic region where tectonic plates converge, making it one of the most exposed areas to earthquakes and tsunamis in the world. Consequently, the seismic risk in Japan is significantly higher than in many other regions of the globe, including Germany. However, we must acknowledge that Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power after the Fukushima accident was largely driven by domestic political considerations, public opinion pressure, and environmental concerns. Seismic risk was not the primary motivation behind this decision.
This struggle within the European Union seems to be one the pro-nuclear side is set to win. In July 2022, in a milestone vote for Europe’s climate and energy policies, the European Parliament endorsed labelling some gas and nuclear energy projects “green,” allowing them access to hundreds of billions of euros in cheap loans and even state subsidies.
To maintain its energy production, Germany decided to bet on liquified natural gas, through the Nord Stream 2 (NS2) project. But the contentious gas pipeline has come to represent Germany’s heavily scrutinised energy and security strategy. This strategy aimed to establish diplomatic connections through trade while providing domestic companies with affordable energy resources. Unfortunately, it resulted in Germany becoming overly reliant on Russian oil and gas. This overreliance granted Russia the leverage to manipulate energy provisions following its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, consequently plunging Europe into a severe energy crisis. Natural gas is not only more harmful in terms of CO2 emissions than nuclear power, but it also means less energy independence for the entire European Union.
Moreover, it is important to note that nuclear technologies are evolving, becoming safer and easier to implement across the world. Among these innovations are small modular reactors (SMRs), which are designed to be more compact, flexible, and inherently safer than traditional large-scale reactors. They can be mass-produced, reducing costs, and their modular nature allows for easier integration into existing energy infrastructure.
Additionally, thorium-based reactors have gained attention as a potential solution to address safety concerns and reduce nuclear waste. Thorium is more abundant and produces fewer long-lived radioactive waste products than traditional uranium reactors.
Longer term, ongoing research into nuclear fusion holds the promise of a nearly limitless, clean, and safe energy source, should the technology finally prove viable and scalable. Fusion research aims to replicate the conditions of the sun, where atomic nuclei merge, releasing vast amounts of energy with minimal radioactive waste. These innovative technologies collectively strive to enhance the safety and environmental impact of nuclear energy, providing alternatives to traditional nuclear power generation.
Nuclear waste management is a critical aspect of the nuclear energy industry. The long-term storage and disposal of nuclear waste is an ongoing challenge, but significant progress has been made in finding safer and more sustainable solutions. One notable development is the concept of deep geological repositories. These repositories involve the burial of nuclear waste in stable geological formations deep underground, providing multiple barriers to prevent the release of radioactive materials. Countries like Sweden and Finland have made substantial headway in implementing these repositories, with Sweden’s “Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory” and Finland’s “Onkalo” serving as leading examples.
However, according to a Greenpeace report on nuclear waste, numerous challenges still persist. Public perception and acceptance of deep geological repositories remain significant hurdles, often due to concerns over long-term safety. Additionally, regulatory and political obstacles can slow down the implementation of these solutions. The financial burden of developing and maintaining safe storage sites also poses a challenge. Moreover, the international community continues to grapple with finding consistent and standardised approaches to nuclear waste management. The quest for innovative and sustainable nuclear waste management solutions is ongoing, with a focus on enhancing safety, minimising environmental impact, and ensuring the long-term integrity of storage and disposal facilities. While progress has been made, addressing these challenges is crucial for establishing a secure and sustainable nuclear waste management framework.
In conclusion, nuclear energy carries undeniable risks, but it is vital to consider the implications of completely phasing it out. The transition to alternative energy sources is a complex issue, and experts like Dr James Hansen and Dr Ken Caldeira argue that a more nuanced approach is necessary to address our energy needs while minimising the impact on the environment and public health.
It is crucial to make informed decisions regarding our energy future, taking into account expert opinions and empirical data to ensure a sustainable and secure energy supply. Understanding the psychology of public perception and fear surrounding nuclear energy is essential to grasp why it often evokes strong emotions. Media coverage plays a crucial role, as sensationalised reporting of nuclear incidents can amplify public anxiety and create lasting impressions.
Cognitive biases, such as the availability heuristic, contribute to this phenomenon. People tend to overestimate the likelihood of events that readily come to mind, and nuclear accidents like Chernobyl or Fukushima are etched into collective memory due to their notoriety. As a result, individuals tend to perceive nuclear energy as riskier than it statistically is.
Moreover, the psychological phenomenon of loss aversion makes negative outcomes, such as nuclear accidents, more salient and memorable, further influencing public opinion. These psychological factors can overshadow the broader discussions of the safety advancements and potential benefits associated with nuclear energy, leading to a skewed perception of its risks.
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Nuclear energy can help decarbonise the power grid, mitigate climate change and improve energy security – so why are the public still so scared?
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