Editorial: Nuclear energy faces stern test

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The final death toll of the disaster in northeastern Japan is certain to run into the tens of thousands. The numbers are mind-boggling, though in the scale of human history, this will be far from a record-breaker. Some 26 quakes in recorded history have had death tolls larger than 50,000 and twice that number have killed more than 10,000. And not all have had their lethal effects amplified by a tsunami, which has wrought most of the devastation in this case.

Uncounted among the casualties so far, but having unquestionably sustained critical damage, is the already shaky confidence of the world in nuclear power. A quarter century on from Chernobyl, the word "nuclear" was being uttered with increasing frequency in debates about satisfying global energy needs on a planet threatened by anthropogenic climate change.

British scientist James Lovelock, famed for his Gaia hypothesis, which conceived of the earth and its inhabitants as a single organism, scandalised his followers in 2004 by pronouncing nuclear power "the only solution to global warming" and calling on environmentalists to drop their "wrongheaded objection" to it.

Discussion since has tentatively assumed that industry standards might have advanced far enough for us consider Chernobyl and Three Mile Island part of the historical record rather than reminders of present risk.

Fukushima has changed all that. All three of the crippled complex's nuclear plants have suffered partial meltdowns; worse may be to come. But it is important, both at this time and as the wider implications are discussed in the weeks and months ahead, to keep a sense of perspective.

Malfunctions at nuclear facilities quite properly cause alarm but such alarm takes root in the public imagination at least in part for spurious reasons: images of mushroom clouds and mad scientists spring to mind and the horror is magnified because the danger is unseen - of toxins invisibly spread on the wind and in rain.

Yet even in the gloomiest scenario, what happens at Fukushima will not kill one per cent of the numbers that are already confirmed or suspected dead. The wastelands that we see in heartbreaking television images may be eerily reminiscent of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, but they are not wrought by technology; forces as old as the planet are to blame.

A UN report compiled by 100 scientists has concluded that only 56 people died as a result of radiation leaks from Chernobyl; much worse has been damage to the mental health of those worrying about the effects.

Plainly there are lessons to be learned from what has happened and is still happening at Fukushima. Why the No 1 reactor, which was due for decommissioning last month, was re-permitted for another 10 years needs to be explained and the complex's maintenance schedules audited.

It is also quite proper to ask whether we should ever allow nuclear power stations to be built in earthquake-prone landscapes, of which Japan and New Zealand are prime examples. But this is not the time for a backlash against the very idea of nuclear energy. There is more of the planet to consider than a 30km-radius zone around Fukushima.

- Herald on Sunday

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