On the anniversary of the devastating Japanese tsunami that resulted in the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant, Greenpeace launched a campaign and film aimed at preventing any future for nuclear power both in Japan and globally.
Greenpeace was founded to oppose nuclear weapons testing, so it is understandable that they remain against nuclear to this day. However their blanket comparison of nuclear weapons and nuclear power is unfair, many of the facts they state about Fukushima are misleading, and their opposition to nuclear power is inadvertently encouraging the prolonged use of fossil fuels and the terrible climate consequences they cause. It is time they joined the tide of realistic environmentalists and stopped their campaign against nuclear.
Nuclear is low-carbon, and provides more of the world’s clean energy than all renewables put together according to the IEA. It is also the safest energy source when comparing deaths per kilowatt year as the bar graph from David MacKay’s “Sustainability without the hot air” shows (click on image to enlarge).
Greenpeace neglects to mention these points. Instead, they focus on the disruption that Fukushima caused. Calling the accident a disaster is controversial. The preceding tsunami was certainly disastrous, a horrific natural event which caused immeasurable suffering. The nuclear accident however, caused no deaths and there is no evidence of increased cancer raters according the World Health Organization. As Greenpeace’s own (and as such not unbiased) research shows, there is radiation at the site. But it must be remembered that radiation is natural, and people are exposed to it every day; a cat scan, x-ray, trans-Atlantic flight or holiday to parts of Brazil, Cornwall or Scotland all involve exposure to radiation and, in many cases, a greater dose than those recorded at Fukushima.
In fact much research, including a new paper by the Oxford Journal of Public Health has argued that there was no need to evacuate the Fukushima site due to public health radiation reasons, instead arguing it was only done for “public order” but in doing so caused unnecessary stress. It is also unfair to assign these emotive negatives of energy production to just nuclear. Fukushima caused the potentially unnecessary relocation of 140 000 people. The Three Gorges, renewable hydro damn in neighbouring China caused the relocation of approximately 1.3 million people, as well as hundreds of deaths in construction and many more in upstream floods and landslides; a far more disastrous impact than Fukushima.
These drawbacks of renewable power are understated by Greenpeace. But there is a greater problem with their opposition to nuclear: it is encouraging the use of fossil fuels. Japan closed all of its reactors following Fukushima. To compensate, they massively increased investment in renewables but these technologies alone were only able to make a tiny impact on filling the gap in the energy mix: the rest came from fossil fuels. As the pie charts below show (source IEA), the closure of nuclear meant an increase in dirty fossil fuel production by a huge amount and an equally huge reduction in Japan’s clean energy generation. In time, no doubt, Japan will be able to increase its renewable share, but there will remain no other sustainable alternatives to heating and industry energy needs. Therefore the gap left by nuclear in the foreseeable future can only be filled with fossil fuels. Without suggesting a feasible alternative, it is surprising – if not shocking – that Greenpeace continue to allow their blanket opposition of nuclear to inadvertently advocate a fossil fuel future.
Though Greenpeace may not have taken into account the issues of replacing nuclear, the Japanese people are starting to suffer the consequences and change their opinions accordingly. The huge growth in imports of fossil fuels forced rapid and significant increases in energy costs as well as emissions. This cost was passed on to the consumers and people began to question the sense in leaving so many clean power plants idle. The Greenpeace video interviewed the previous, anti-nuclear prime minister. They neglect to mention that he was democratically voted out of government; instead the people of Japan voted in a coalition of pro-nuclear parties. In fact, in the July 2013 election the pro-nuclear LDP party won a seat in every constituency with a nuclear power plant and the anti-nuclear party won only 59 (out of 242) seats. Although opinion is understandably split, it seems Japan is on balance happy to embrace the benefits of re-starting its reactors, and Greenpeace are fighting against this tide of positive opinion.
Greenpeace’s video concludes with emotive interviews, one of which is a long statement against nuclear weapons. It is an unfair and poor comparison to link nuclear power with nuclear weapons in this way as they are completely different and an acceptance of nuclear power does not stop one being opposed to nuclear weapons. In fact, the main way of destroying nuclear weapons is by reacting the material in nuclear power stations. So nuclear power is in fact the key mechanism to achieve disarmament.
Greenpeace’s action on highlighting the urgency of climate change and encouraging renewables is valuable. But Greenpeace must reconsider their action on nuclear power. Nuclear is a clean, sustainable and safe energy source, especially with the new post-Fukushima technology now on offer. It is also the only current feasible and sustainable way of providing the energy needed for heating and industry that accounts for over half of global energy demand. A growing group of environmentalists are now coming out publically in support of nuclear, arguing that it is vitally needed to combat the greater evil of climate change. Before Fukushima, Japan had plans to provide an impressive 50% of its energy from low carbon (nuclear) sources by 2030. By the mid century, the climate crises will be rapidly worsening and the world will need to drastically decarbonize. Japan’s clean energy ambition, exploiting an “all of the above” strategy, should therefore be encouraged, not opposed.
 Excluding biomass and waste.