Almost buried in the avalanche of news, is the report that the Japanese government has decided to abandon its plan to get half of its electricity from nuclear power, and they’ll promote renewable energy and conservation instead.
The impact of most of the other stories will lessen in time, and these instances will take their place in history. The need for reliable, safe, economical sources of energy is a very big problem for the world’s industrial nations and increasingly for developing nations.
With a shrinking of world sources of petroleum, and concerns about the environmental effects of coal, many nations were planning to rely on nuclear power. At one time, the nuclear industry bragged that its reactors could produce electricity too cheap to meter. Well, the industry’s "bragadoshio" has quieted down significantly. Three years ago, you could build a nuclear reactor for $3 billion. Today, they’re in the range of $10 to 11 billion, and rising. No reactor ordered in the United States since 1974 has been completed. President Nixon promised that we’d have a thousand reactors in operation by the year 2000. Well today, there are 104.
Without government financing, there would be none. It's just too risky for private capital. The reasons for the disappointing figures are many and compelling. It's now estimated that 995,000 people lost their lives as a result of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. It's much too early to know the total cost in human lives of the Fukushima calamity, but we do know that 80,000 people living within a 12-mile radius were evacuated from their homes.
None of the world's reactor operators has a solution for the safe storage of the most lethal substance ever created by human beings. We know that the nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountains failed. And that more than 60,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste is stored across the United States. We know that people like Ann Coulter, who tells her viewers that radiation can actually improve your health and that of your children are doing a disservice to America.
It seems certain that Japan's action will prompt us and other nations to renew and increase our efforts to develop energy sources such as photovoltaic cells – wind, solar, geothermal, and biofuels. And there are indications that some of these may become economically viable. There are indications too that six weeks after the earthquake, radioactive emissions in Fukushima are worsening. I pray for the Japanese people, but in a sense I'm hopeful that their horrible experience may save others from the same fate.