Why Can’t We Turn Away From Coal As Japan Has Turned Away From Nuclear?

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Krista Mahr posted a great item this morning on Japan’s decision to stop building new nuclear plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Atomic power already supplies some 30% of Japan’s electricity—considerably larger than nuclear’s share in the U.S.—and the Japanese government had plans on table to add another 14 reactors and up nuclear’s proportion to 50%. That seems extremely unlikely now, barring a change of heart by the Japanese population that—judging from recent protests—isn’t going to happen. If anything, Japan’s existing nuclear sector could be further squeezed—earlier this week the Chubu Electric Power Company agreed to suspend operations at its Hamaoka nuclear power plant until better earthquake and tsunami defenses were installed.

No one would blame the Japanese for turning away from nuclear power. The Fukushima meltdown, which is still unfolding, is the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, easily. Nor is the first time that Japan’s troubled nuclear power system has run into problems—Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owners of the Fukushima plant, have been cited for safety issues in the past. The risks of earthquakes and tsunamis on their unstable islands mean that Japanese may well be at a greater risk for such catastrophes. And of course, as the only nation to ever suffer a nuclear bombing, Japan has a long and complicated relationship with radiation. There are still surviving hibakusha, the victims of the atomic attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their very presence a reminder of the potential horrors of nuclear. Nor is Japan alone. In the wake of Fuksushima, Germany is accelerating a plan to phase out nuclear energy, and now expects to do so as early as 2020.

And yet—if the decision to turn away from nuclear is based on simple fear, the reality is there are much clearer dangers posed by other forms of energy. As I wrote in a post last month, on a sheer blood-per-KW basis—the amount of lives lost on average per the amount of juice produced—the human cost of nuclear is much less than fossil fuels like coal (incredibly deadly), oil and natural gas. Admittedly, those numbers were calculated before the ultimate effect of Fukushima can be known, though the early evidence suggests that with the proper cautions—especially through fastidious screening of food and water for any radioactivity—the worst health impacts should be avoided. (Much of the increased cancer risk from Chernobyl was because the Soviet government failed to keep children and young adults from drinking contaminated milk.) A simple comparison is the accident itself—although the brave emergency personnel who have attended to the Fukushima plant will almost certainly face an elevated cancer risk later in life, only two workers have died, and that was during the initial tsunami, not the meltdown. Compare that to the 29 miners who died last year in the criminal collapse of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, or for that matter, the 2,433 Chinese who died in coal mining accidents last year.

Of course, those are just the deaths involved in the production of coal. Burning coal creates air pollution, releasing particulates, mercury and other toxins into the atmosphere. Whatever certain Republican members of Congress may think, that pollution is deadly to human beings. A report by the Clean Air Task Force from 2010 estimated that more than 13,000 American a year suffered premature deaths because of coal-related air pollution. For comparison’s sake, the UN has estimated that the final death toll from Chernobyl was around 4,000 people, and even if you accept the higher tolls put forward by environmental groups, coal would still be a much bigger killer over time. As my colleague Eben Harrell wrote recently, there’s little to suggest that those living near nuclear plants face unusual health risks.

And then there’s climate change. Whatever your feelings about the risks and rewards of nuclear power, you can’t argue with the fact that it remains the only baseline source of virtually zero-carbon electricity. Compare that to coal, which is responsible for about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Take nuclear out of the mix, and you’ll see carbon emissions rise unless the difference can be offset with conservation and renewables. That’s exactly what Japan has said it will do, but that will be challenging—the country doesn’t have a very big renewables sector, and its mountainous land mass and small size mean that wind and utility-scale solar will be very expensive. (One estimate found that renewables cost Tokyo Electric $0.38 pe KW/hour, compared to $0.11 for fossil fuels and $0.07 for power from nuclear.) In reality, fossil fuels including natural gas will likely play a bigger role in Japan’s electricity mix going forward. An analysis by the Breakthrough Institute—an energy think tank with generally pro-nuclear leanings—found that if Japan replaced all of its nuclear generation with a mix of coal and cleaner natural gas, national carbon emissions would rise by 13%. Obviously that’s a thought experiment, but it should give us an idea of the scale of the challenge Japan faces as it turns away from nuclear power.

Again, it all comes down to the perception of risk, which we as human beings—as David Ropeik writes in a nice post for Nature—are not very good at calculating. Radiation scares us for reasons that have nothing to do with logic, while far-off threats like climate change and background dangers like air pollution fail to move us. Japan has every right to turn away from nuclear power, especially as Fukushima smolders. But I only wish we were as scared of coal as we are of the atom, and acted accordingly.

More from TIME:

Japan’s Meltdown

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