Until very recently, despite the Left apparently being opposed in the main to nuclear power, a number of people left of centre, including some Greens, and environmental advocates such as Tim Flannery, had been in nodding acceptance mode of what they saw as the inevitable need for nuclear power to bridge the energy gap while the world moves to a lower carbon economy to mitigate against climate change.
Then a doyen of the Left, none less than the Guardian’s George Monbiot, came out in favour of nuclear power, not in spite of the disaster that has occurred at Fukushima - but because of it. That’s right, because of it.
On March 21, ten days after the quake and tsunami that devastated north-eastern Honshu, under the jokey Strangelovean heading of “How the Fukushima disaster taught me to stop worrying and embrace nuclear power”, Monbiot wrote: “You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.
“A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation... Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.”
One cannot help but wonder whether he might regret having written that so quickly, as reports arrive about radiation thousands of times above permitted limits at the plant, of highly radioactive water pouring into the ocean, and of dire warnings of how long it might take to make the plant safe, with one suggesting that that crews might be working there - and presumably being irradiated - for up to a hundred years.
Is nuclear safe, clean and green? Or just very dangerous, very dirty and very expensive?
Whenever there is a nuclear accident, the “nuclear priesthood”, as Richard Broinowski has dubbed them, are instantly in position before the microphones to reassure the world of the overriding safety of nuclear power. We are always told it was a “crappy old plant”, and that the new super-dooper ones being hatched now will leak no radiation, and never ever fail. Yet were not the people living near Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima told precisely that about the plants built in decades past? That they were perfectly safe, and could never, ever fail? If it was a lie back then, as it must have been, why believe it when it is repeated now?
This is of special concern to people living in Australia - and indeed anywhere in the southern hemisphere, given Indonesia’s plans for nuclear power.
In a nation prone to the most powerful earthquakes and tsunamis, no matter where they consider “safe” to build, one would have thought that Jakarta’s plans would have alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power from Canberra to Pretoria and Santiago.
As the Fukushima crisis has deepened, lifelong anti-nuclear campaigner Dr Helen Caldicott has found a newly attentive audience. Melbourne-born Dr Caldicott has lived much of her life in the US, warning the world of the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear power.
During the 1990s she had a weekly radio show in New York City, in which she tirelessly warned of the dangers posed by the Indian Point nuclear plant, just 50 kilometres from midtown Manhattan, and with 17 million people living within an 80 kilometre radius of it.
In the wake of Fukushima, Newsweek magazine revisited her concerns of a meltdown at Indian Point following an earthquake or terrorist attack, quoting her that the radiation deaths from such a catastrophe could eventually top half a million.
None of this addresses the even deeper problems of the nuclear industry, which include no known safe waste disposal - even if Dr Ziggy Switkowsky has suggested a large, “well-engineered” hole in the ground in central Australia. Instead there are leaky drums of high level waste scattered all around the world, dangerous waste that must be safely stored not just for decades, nor even centuries, but millennia.
But yet we have experienced three major accidents in just over three decades, at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima.
The other seemingly insoluble problem for nuclear adherents is weapons proliferation from the plutonium produced by nuclear power reactors, and while George Monbiot might put his faith in signatures on “safeguards”, those signatures would have to be honoured for many, many, many generations to come. To believe that any such safeguards could be enforced over the span of time required, is pure science fantasy.
Nuclear power is touted as a fix to a problem, global warming, that could affect humanity for centuries to come. But it is a toxic, lethal, explosive “solution”, that could plague humanity for thousands of years. George Monbiot is foolish and reckless to suggest nuclear is a risk worth taking, especially when so much could be achieved by other means, including gas-fired stations replacing coal, and solar, wind and other renewables, if they were resourced with adequate funding. Post Fukushima, where the nuclear dream turned into a nightmare, that might now just happen.