I’d like to thank the commentator for his/her thoughts on my nuclear energy post. Thoughtful, also your blog, thanks. I would just add a couple of remarks. The commentator suggested that nuclear energy should be part of our future because its damages are much less than the climate change damages that traditional energy sources (like oil, coal) may cause. He/she underlined this by hinting at the costs from (climate change-induced) disasters during the past couple of years.
There is some evidence now that there are already impacts of global warming, yes. But how many events of the past few years can actually be fully or partially attributed to global warming is impossible to say. No one really knows. And most likely no one will ever know. And one should not forget that a part of the damage was mankind’s own doing, e.g. New Orleans’ architecture, or population-push into flood-prone areas. So all I am saying is that one has to be careful trying to argue which share of natural disaster costs are attributable to actual climate change.
Also, I would think that it is not entirely clear that, between potential nuclear disasters and climate change, potential nuclear disasters is the lesser evil. Let’s go through some quick calculations. If you go through the list of nuclear accidents, see HERE, then let’s say during the whole existence of nuclear power plants (around 60 years), there were three huge ones (Kyshtym, Chernobyl and Fukushima). That makes a probability of 0.05 per year of a large scale accident, or one every twenty years. Assume that the increase in the number of nuclear plants obviously increases the overall probability of disasters, while technological advances decreases it. Let’s assume those two roughly balance out. If you believe they don’t since technological progress may be extremely efficient, then throw in earthquakes, terrorists attack, and still the odd human error, and you may be there. So let’s assume that the probability stays approximately constant. That will make another four events until 2100.
While Kyshtym led to an indefinitely long inhabitable zone of around 800 sqkm, the area contaminated by Chernobyl is 3000 sqkm, while the estimated area around Fukushima amounts to 400 sqkm “only” (fortunately due to the wind). Given that “only” approximately 15% of the radiation of Chernobyl was released, this could mean that the area estimate for Fukushima is roughly correct. That already adds up to 4200 sqkm. Multiply this by 1.33 (4 disasters until 2100 over the 3 that happened), add the number (5600) to the 4200, and we get roughly 10 000 sqkm. That is the area that we would expect to be indefinitely inhabitable for every 150 years that are coming. What is the value of that area? What is the cost of deplacing the people? And what is the subjective cost of the fear of nuclear disasters? Noone really knows and it is a really difficult task to come up with an estimate…
In addition, one always has to remember that there is the option to adapt to climate change to a certain degree. So basically all I am saying is that we need to be careful when we argue for a technology that has the potential to lead to an inhabitable area the size of Jamaica every 150 years. And that is only the inhabitable area – radiation problems from fallout that may travel for kilometers and kilometers is not even added here.
I think it is also a mistake to basically say that between two evils (climate change and potential nuclear disaster) we choose what may be the lesser one (potential nuclear disaster, although I tried to argue that this is not fully clear), because we have a third option available: social change, cultural change, a thoughtful and thought-through way of life. If one allows for a trade-off that figures this additional dimension into the equation of any policy maker, then it is not entirely clear whether the initial question – nuclear energy versus climate change, is actually appropriate.