The earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan shocked us this weekend as we watched with horrified fascination as walls of water destroyed thousands of homes and killed countless people. In a country that experiences dozens of earthquakes a year, this particular disaster was beyond any scale ever contemplated by the compulsively disciplined and always prepared Japanese people, but they never lost their stoic presence and seemingly unlimited patience even as their well ordered lives and basic services disappeared before their eyes. That stoicism, though, has begun to fade as the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant continues for a a sixth day. Evacuations of the area around the plant have now spread to 20 kilometers with warnings out to 30 kilometers. As the reality of the unfolding disaster became apparent, many people fled as far as Tokyo to escape the still developing crisis. Panic began to creep into Tokyo, 150 miles south of the stricken plant, as increased radiation levels were detected yesterday. Flights out of Japan are now jammed as people have begun to flee the country over radiation fears and collapsing infrastructure. It’s the doomsday scenario many have feared for ages.
There’s nothing like a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane to make us realize that we really aren’t in control of our own personal destiny. These events also cause us to reflect on how our own decisions as a society may actually exacerbate the long term effects of a disaster (such as building a city below sea level, then not properly protecting it against storm surges). In the case of this particular disaster, serious reflection has begun as questions are once again being raised about the wisdom of the use of nuclear power to generate base load electricity in many countries around the world, especially those in quake zones. It’s now all over the media; some dismiss the concerns as hyperbole and others cry that it’s the end of the world; however, many serious people are having that tough discussion about how we fuel our energy future if we don’t use nuclear power.
Here’s our particular problem: The United States, through weak leadership, short sightedness caused by our 2 year re-election cycle and the influence of corporate money, has utterly failed to establish a long term vision for our energy future. Band aid solutions, special interest legislation, and poor judgement have taken us into the 21st century with 60 to 100 year old technology and energy sources, and no one has the courage to call this insanity, well, insanity. The result is predictable, clearly demonstrating that our dependence on foreign oil from countries who hate us is suicidal. The ongoing unrest in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and even Saudi Arabia has highlighted this risk. Our dependence on oil has driven us into the deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico and into the Arctic to feed our gluttony. At the same time, de-regulation and industry complacency led to the inevitable result of the blowout of the BP Macondo well and the ongoing environmental catastrophe that the media and politicians are happy to ignore. Speaking of ignorance, we are also willfully oblivious to the very obvious signs of limited worldwide oil reserves as well as the damage that we are doing to our own environment by our huge carbon footprint. Elected representatives, looking for cheap political points, give lip service to climate change, renewables, conservation, and sustainable energy sources while taking money from oil companies and actually doing nothing, except for allowing the same old policies that got us here in the first place to continue.
Which brings us to nuclear power. This is really the only non-carbon energy source that has any hope of stemming the tide of oil and coal consumption. But it has its obvious inherent dangers. Why does Japan use nuclear power? The answer is simple: they have to. Japan has no significant sources of hydrocarbon energy, so must use nuclear to avoid dependence on other countries for oil, gas, or coal. However, the problem is that the whole damn country is an earthquake zone, not the best environment for a technology that doesn’t react well (no pun intended) when it’s shaken around a bit and flooded with seawater. These same issues are faced by many nuclear powered countries, including us.
So what do we do? This is where being an adult comes into play. As adults, we need to consider that our world has limited resources, limited atmosphere, and limited space. And it’s getting more crowded and dirty. Hydrocarbons simply can’t fill all of our energy need. Renewables can’t fill enough of our energy need. Natural gas, which is becoming more abundant, has become a great answer for a lot of our needs, but for the long run we still need non-carbon based energy to make our hydrocarbon resources last longer and be more environment friendly. Nuclear fills that place, but clearly we’re not to the point where it is fool-proof safe. It’s time that we all assess our own personal uses of carbon based fuels, and pressure our elected representatives to do something besides bashing the other side to get re-elected. It’s also time that we demand they they also act like adults and responsibly address the issues around nuclear power design, construction, and operation, as well as the safety of that and other energy technologies.
Call your Congressperson, your Senator, your Governor, and your mayor. Tell them you want a comprehensive energy policy that’s neither Drill, Baby, Drill, or sticking their heads in the sand. Only when pressure from the People is unrelenting will they perhaps get off their collective backside do something courageous. They won’t do it by themselves.
Bob Cavnar, a 30-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, is the author of Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout. He is CEO of Luca Technologies.