Thoughts On Nuclear Energy

I have a long technical article that I plan to study and improve when I am invited to visit the Stockholm School of Economics for the purpose of giving the kind of brilliant lecture on nuclear energy and nuclear economics that they both need and deserve. Whether the algebra involved is digested by my audience to the necessary degree is less important, because the problem is that too few persons are conversant with non-technical energy issues that are relevant for the lives of themselves and their families. What I want to do in this short article is to present several important facts that readers should make an effort to remember.

The nuclear facility at Fukushima was constructed about 40 years ago from blueprints prepared 5 or 10 years earlier. Suddenly it was a victim of one of the most powerful earthquakes  experienced in Japan in the last 200 years, and also in the path of a destructive tsunami that featured waves up to 40 meters high. The tsunami killed more than 18,000 people along Japan's north-east coast and forced the evacuation of 150,000 residents from villages and towns close to the Fukushima Daiichi plant. But – as noted by the Canadian nuclear engineer and executive Malcolm Rawlingson in a comment on the site EnergyPulse – the survival of the Fukushima nuclear facility (with only one fatality) could be described as a structural miracle. Similarly, as indicated by the testimony of the Swedish diplomat and nuclear expert Hans Blix, its survival demonstrated what we can  expect from future generations of (technologically superior) nuclear facilities!

As much as I hate to say it, Rawlingson might be mistaken about a detail of the Fukushima tragedy. Just the other day I reviewed a publication which claimed that there were not one but two fatalities at the Daiichi installation. Notice the word ‘might’. But as Rawlingson noted, when the tsunami began, persons ran into instead of away from the Fukushima facility.

In my new energy economics textbook ENERGY AND ECONOMIC THEORY (2015), and elsewhere, I point out that we are living in a very different world from the one presented in our Econ 101 literature, where it is taken for granted that beautiful rationality is present or accounted for in every nook and cranny of modern communities. But where is the rationality when a tsunami takes place in Japan that involves several casualties in a nuclear facility, and on the other side of the world, in Germany, the holder of the highest political office immediately throws in the nuclear towel. I don’t think that we need to discuss the competence or incompetence of the German chancellor in the present contribution, but about a year prior to the Fukushima incident, Frau Merkel  was telling anyone willing to listen that Germany needed more nuclear.

Here a quotation is useful. According to Professor Richard Muller of the University of California, “The great tragedy of the Fukushima accident is that Japan shut down all of its nuclear reactors”! Put more sublimely, the decision makers in that country chose to ignore rather than ridicule the crank criticism whose intent was to convince us  that – as the excellent Perry Sioshansi (2011) informed friends and neighbors –  nuclear was on its last legs,

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