Saturday, 19 March 2011

Where technology goes in the wrong place

This last week’s news has been dominated by a catastrophic disaster affecting the northeast of Japan, where a huge earthquake and resultant tsunami have:
  1. destroyed many towns on the northeast coast of Honshū
  2. destroyed numerous nuclear power stations
Although socialist radicals have consistently been against nuclear power, with age and reading I have become a little more mellow in opposition to it. In part, this mellowing has been related to the fact that I know fast reactors can be much more efficient with uranium use than conventional reactors, even though they require liquid sodium metal which is violently dangerous if leaked.

However, this last week’s earthquake has undoubtedly turned the global public away from nuclear power because, with a cold change expected to reach eastern Honshū in the coming days, radiation that is now being blown out into the Pacific Ocean will be blown back towards Asia and into very densely populated areas. My mother today said that this disaster is by no means so bad as the infamous Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

However, there is one question of vital importance: if nuclear power can do something to allow us to live comfortably on less energy (as it might indeed with the efficiency of fast reactors) should we not be careful to place nuclear power plants in areas known to be at no risk of damage from natural hazards like earthquakes, cyclones and other strong winds, volcanoes, or landslides. Even if Japan was in the 1950s and 1960s when it developed a nuclear programme a country desperately short of energy, it should have been known how dangerous nuclear explosions would be in this seismically ultra-active areas.

In contrast, it is the most seismically inert areas like Australia where the ecological costs of fossil fuels are disproportionately felt – and where nuclear power would be quite safe and economic of energy especially if a cycle is used to smelt salt into metallic sodium. Yet, owing to its limitless coal reserves and poor land conservation, Australia has never developed this kind of advanced technology and has, sort of, remained stuck in a type of society designed for the Enriched continents.

What might be the best lesson from this disaster is that people need to be careful where they do dangerous jobs – at least ecologically.

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