Debate: Did Nature Press the Reset Button on Energy

2011•03•18 Brendan F.D. Barrett Osaka University

It is just one week since the earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohoku-Kanto region. The weather has taken a turn for the worse hampering rescue and recovery efforts. The catastrophic nuclear accidents at the Fukushima plants have sadly been diverting attention from recovery operations and placed those nearby in an increasingly vulnerable position and severe risk, to the extent that many feel abandoned in the shelters.

The evacuees are having to pull-together in order to overcome very difficult conditions. Thankfully, new supply routes are being opened and supplies are getting through.

Meanwhile, the news media and the Internet are bombarding us with expert opinions on what is happening in Fukushima, one of the most severe nuclear accidents ever to take place, and on what the worst-case scenario could represent. These divergent opinions are confusing and frightening a large segment of the population in Japan, including foreigners living around Tokyo and elsewhere, ourselves included.

Now is not the time for detailed analysis and finger-pointing. We will have plenty of time later to examine the events surrounding this disaster and to learn from them.

However, it is a good time for those afar and unaffected to reflect, and we would really like to hear from you. Have events in Japan surrounding the nuclear accident changed your thinking about energy and how it relates to your life and what your expectations are for the future?

The future is now

Our regular readers will recall that just over a month back, by coincidence, we hosted a debate on nuclear energy. Only five people commented and we were admittedly disappointed with the lack of response. But interestingly, one of those commenters, Globalciti, wrote:

“I have a feeling that investing in nuclear energy, no matter how desperately we may need the energy now, may be one of those things we come to regret in the future. From the moment the uranium is extracted from the ground to the wastes that have to be buried deep down underground again it seems like there are harmful consequences every step of the way.”

We are sure Globalciti did not expect that future to arrive so soon. On the other hand, at the same time we reported that in many countries we were seeing a nuclear renaissance, as it is seen (rightly or wrongly) as one source of energy that doesn’t contribute to climate change in that it reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Today, just a week after Japan’s tsunami and subsequent nuclear reaction, our impression is that many more people have a strong opinion on the merits of nuclear power. However, discussions around particular energy sources are often biased by interests tied to one power source versus another. If you are working or associated with the nuclear industry, your mind is likely to be closed to other alternatives. Likewise if your passion is for renewable energy sources, you cannot see anything else as being a better solution.

Perhaps now we have a chance to re-visit this conversation with an open mind. Can and should we wean ourselves off our reliance on nuclear power, not to mention fossil fuels? How far can alternatives go to meet the shortfall? What other options do we have? Can we, for instance, power down and get by in the future with less energy consumption? If a huge power-sucking metropolis like Tokyo can manage to conserve power today in a crisis situation, why can’t it become a habit to use energy and other finite resources more economically under normal circumstances?

Our goal today is to provide you with the opportunity to share your ideas on how you would like to see energy handled across the world. Do not worry if you are not an expert on energy issues. We would just like to hear how you feel at present and how an energy-hungry world can move forward from here.

Nature has expressed an opinion — what is yours?

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Debate 2.0: Did Nature Press the Reset Button on Energy by Brendan Barrett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.



Brendan F.D. Barrett

Osaka University

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a specially appointed professor at Osaka University in the Center for the Study of Co*Design. He teaches and undertakes research as part of the Co-creation Design Division. His core areas of expertise include urban transitions, ethical cities, sustainability science, and science/research communication.

Brendan worked with the United Nations in Japan between 1995 and 2015, with the UN Environment Programme and the United Nations University (UNU). At UNU he was the Head of Online Learning and Head of Communications where he oversaw the development of interactive websites and video documentaries on complex social and environmental concerns. As a result, Brendan has extensive experience in science communications and launched the Our World web magazine in 2008.

Join the Discussion

  • My opinion is that if nature is counter-nuclear it’s even counter-6billion people world. I don’t know if nuclear at this point is considerable yet an option, but our disperate need of energy and dependence on oil is going to worse any aspect of modern world.

    Renewables, smart-grids, energy efficiency, electric cars and alternative fuels from non crop cultivations are surely the future i have no doubt on this, but in the meantime the gap between what we consume and what we produce with renewables is to hightto be realistically be fulfilled in few years, imo we need some decades to do this. Well if will continue with the actual economy paradigm.

    And before we let go this paradigm we’ve to think about how we can sustain the actual world population and it’s growth (think about BRIC’s). If we mix in this scenario even the risk related to oil (PeakOil, rising social issues in producer nations) we’ve the recipe of the perfect storm.

    Nuclear is a bad answer to a bad problem, but how much other options do we’ve? Is stopping the economic growth an option? How much can we cut of our current energy demand without affect economic growth? And even if energy efficiency can be a new market for economic growth, with the current lowering purchase power of OECD peoples, who’ll pay for that? I mean is the current world without nuclear economically sustainable?

  • As the hard facts of finite oil supplies have become more mainstream in recent months I found myself more accepting that nuclear may end up continuing as part of the global energy mix. Perhaps my previous resistance had been worn down, perhaps I was seduced by hopes that new “safer” nuclear technologies could be brought online.

    Now, though, with Fukushima I have taken the opportunity to study it more, to better assess, realistically, whether my previous acquiescence to a nuclear future made sense. And my firm conclusion is a more informed reaffirmation of my original stance: Nuclear power is not a viable option in a sustainable world. And we WILL have a sustainable world. Whether we like it or not. Because nature will not abide by any other option over the long term. Despite our hubristic fantasies that humans can take over the controls.

    At best nuclear provides short-term benefits but there are many reasons why it isn’t an option over the long term. Here are just three:
    – One is that nuclear fuel is itself a finite substance that will run out (think peak uranium).
    – A second is that we have no viable long-term storage plan for spent fuel (think taking out a mortgage on future generations for our own present comfort).
    – Third is that nuclear reactors themselves are a reflection of our most-leveraged technology (think profoundly out of balance with nature).

    Nuclear technology is extremely leveraged in that with nuclear we have moved about as far away as possible from what nature harmoniously and sustainably provides. Leveraging entails risk, as we know from economics. It is great – even stupendous (remember “too cheap to meter”?) – until it suddenly isn’t. And then the costs of rebalancing a highly leveraged situation come home to roost. And much pain ensues. Think economic recession, think Fukushima.

    Better that we avoid highly leveraged things in general, particularly when they involve innocent bystanders. Our intellects and egos thrill to our cleverness, but our wiser selves recognize that anything so out of balance cannot be sustained over time. Leveraging with few people involved (like space shuttles or moonwalks) is risky for those few involved. Leveraging with many people involved who have not directly signed up to participate (like nuclear plants or global financial instruments) is irresponsible.

    Right now, our modern industrial paradigm continues to live in a dream that we exist in a world of infinite economic growth powered by infinite energy. Within this dream we cannot fathom any other options. We MUST use nuclear, despite its risks, because not doing so would entail economic collapse, we say. We MUST keep growing economically because not doing so would…well, make us wake up to the fact that the story we’ve told ourselves about how we’re separate from nature and destined to control it is – in fact – not true.

    It is fully within our capabilities to adjust our lifestyles to use less energy, and if we don’t do it voluntarily then nature will simply do it for us, more dramatically and more suddenly. Nature is no fool. And we’re no fools. When we’re awake and seeing reality.

  • Kenji Watanabe

    There are a number of lessons we can learn from Fukushima nuclear crisis.

    One of them we can learn and observe now in Tokyo is that we do not need the nuclear energy plants when Tokyo metro and subway systems use less energy, and high rise buildings, shopping malls, pleasure parks, etc.. consume less energy than usual. No rotating blackout plan will be implmented on Saturday when there are less economic activities in Tokyo.

    That leads me to a conclusion that we do not need nuclear reactors in Japan if and when individual business entities including the above transportation, skyscrapers and other facilities get less dependent on outside electricity supply and adopt self-reliant energy generators such as sloar, wind and hydro.

    Individual corporate investments in adopting individual renewable energy technology would surely lead to a nuclear independent economy by reducing the number of nuclear plants one by one. I think the current situation in Tokyo is still reliant on nuclear energy plants in other regions of Japan.

    Carbon (energy) tax, higher tax deductions for renewable energy technology, government subsidies to promote R&D, adoptation of clean technology plus other incentives and regulations in energy and manufacturing industries would certainly turn out revolutionary.

    Isn’t that the government led politics, DPJ wanted? Leaders and Congress need to learn from the expensive lessons and show the resolve and roadmap toward such future course.

  • Esther Penner

    Humans tend to forget that planet earth is a life form much greater than humans, individually or combined. We really need to show Her more honor and respect. We also tend to forget that we are an intelligent life-form with imagination. As such it should not be this difficult to understand that planet earth is our host. It feeds, shelters, and clothes us. And if that is not enough She nurtures our souls with Her infinite beauty–where we have the good sense not to muck things up. Did nature ‘press the reset button’? I don’t think so. I think we did, with our greed and unwillingness to honor what She gives us every single day. Talk about being taken for granted!

  • Benjamin Davis

    I have mixed feelings about nuclear energy, and while this accident has made me think more about it, it hasn’t particularly changed my mind about anything.

    Frankly – and I say this as a resident of Tokyo who has been here through the whole bloody mess – the Fukushima accident doesn’t worry me that much. At least, it doesn’t worry me any more than leaky oil lines in Nigeria, the horrors of the rare earth mining process in China (or for that matter mining of just about anything just about anywhere in the world), continued industrial discharge of mercury and other substances, the growth of the great pacific garbage patch, endless filthy smokestacks pumping out CO2 and worse, and any number of other horrible earth-destroying processes that happen every year that don’t make as eye-catching headlines as “NUCLEAR MELTDOWN”. If we think it’s necessary to have all these other horrible, large-scale evils for modern civilization, I don’t see how we can rationally demonize nuclear energy and its inevitable occasional accident.

    Now, is nuclear necessary? Honestly, I don’t know if we can have NASA, I don’t know if we can have CERN or the Large Hadron Collider, I don’t know if we can mega-supercomputers, I don’t know if we can have huge submarines that spend 8 months on the sea floor or robotic Mars Science Laboratories, unless we have at least a few energy sources that match those endeavors in superhuman scale. Nuclear energy is an amazing, mad technology appropriate to match the amazing, mad dreams of scientists. I don’t think we should stop investigating the physics of the universe or give up our dreams of the stars just because we have some (horrible, awful) accidents sometimes. (Heck, I’m not even willing to ask society to give up smartphones even though I know mining rare earth elements is absolutely, completely awful.) “All for the sake of Progress!” as they used to say before large segments of society stopped having manifest destiny dreams for science, technology, and humanity.

    For that matter, no one has made a massive train system yet that I know of that doesn’t have massive energy needs that so far can only be met by nuclear or fossil fuels. Maybe it could be possible by making all the roads/tracks double as solar panels or something, but there is no successful large-scale precedent for that yet. Plus, something needs to power the trains and the factories where electric cars are made. Even having been (very, very, very) mildly irradiated over the last month, I’m still much more comfortable with that something being nuclear (where damage can be severe but localized) as opposed to fossil fuel (where damage is sneaky and cumulative and affects every corner of the earth). I don’t think nuclear as part of our overall energy package is going anywhere soon, and I don’t think it should.

    But on the other hand, all the above being said, we shouldn’t believe we need nuclear energy for our day-to-day lives.

    Nuclear energy is a poster-child for a certain ideology – the idea of infinite energy and infinite resources – that is killing us and the planet. In fact, the true goal of every nuclear scientist, fusion (as opposed to fission), is precisely that: as close to infinite energy as humans have dreamed of thus far. That’s fine for a small subset of human life that deals with the bleeding edge of science and technology, or when making something truly grandiose, say, a tremendous rail system, but in all other endeavors, thinking energy, or any other resource, is essentially infinite encourages us to be stupid and wasteful.

    We’ve had 100 or more years of thinking resources were infinite, and it has built a stupid and wasteful society. The average citizen doesn’t have any idea where their resources come from any more, we just know that the wall outlet provides energy and the tap provides water. Businesses are the same. We won’t get better if we keep thinking that whatever it is, however much energy it sucks up, you just plug it into the wall and VOILA! it works.

    A proven way to encourage efficiency, recycling, and reuse – and innovation on all these fronts – is to have clearly limited resources. It happens naturally in every segment of a society, and examples can be found everywhere from the use of night-soil in ancient Chinese agriculture to the development of smart phones and iPads (limited battery tech -> voluntary reduction in processing power -> radical innovation in personal computing technology and efficiency). What we need now to build a smarter, actually sustainable future is for everyone to know what the limits of our resources are and to start behaving like those limits are real. If we can’t, well, all those dreams of physicists won’t be getting very far, because civilization collapse doesn’t tend to be so good for science. In this respect, having nuclear plants as an option to power cities and towns doesn’t seem like the best long term strategy.

    In conclusion:
    Nuclear energy – Only when we absolutely need it, lest it encourage delusion and waste. (But there is reasonable argument for necessity in pursuing the grandest dreams of science and technology.)

    Japan – Stop all the NIMBLY about geothermal (c’mon guys, the hot springs will still be hot even if you use some of the heat for energy generation) and use the fact that the country is right on the Ring of Fire as a positive condition rather than negative.