The meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant will likely lead to the deaths of thousands or even tens of thousands of people and render a small part of our planet uninhabitable. However we will have no choice but to continue to rely on nuclear power. The ability to generate massive amounts of energy is a prerequisite of the civilization and the level of freedom we have. Like it or not this is the compromise of a modern industrial world – the tools we need to live the lives we want sometimes do significant damage to the natural world.
After 235 years of amazing advances still the most important invention for humankind was James Watt’s steam engine, the first instance of generated energy. Almost every activity in our economy is dependent upon energy. Without the ability to generate vast amounts of inexpensive energy on demand there would be no high yield agriculture, no manufacturing, no widespread exchange of goods and certainly no consumer economy.
For over a hundred years that cheap energy has been from fossil fuels, oil, coal and gas. Many factors have an impact on how long the world’s fossil fuel supply will last – finding new reserves, better extraction methods, transformation of coal, economic cycles, increasing efficiency of vehicles and manufacturing operations, etc. Ultimately the supply is finite and demand will only continue to rise; as democratic capitalism spreads energy demand worldwide will increase dramatically. Already China is the second largest consumer of energy, and as the country slowly stumbles toward democracy it will eventually surpass the U.S. in energy consumption. By some estimates the world will run out of oil in the next fifty years.
As we run out of fossil fuels nuclear energy will likely fill the void. For many people opposition to nuclear energy is a moral issue; because of the scope of the potential harm to humankind in the event of a catastrophic accident such as at Fukushima, nuclear energy is inherently wrong. However the choice is not between risk and no risk – it is a choice between different risks. Global warming and depletion of the ozone through use of fossil fuels arguably could have much greater catastrophic consequences for the planet. And way, way down the road, the potential of running out of energy is even more problematic. A couple of centuries ago, Malthus predicted that the world’s population would outrun its food supply. The variable which proved Malthus wrong was generated energy and the advances in agricultural productivity this allowed. Without being overly dramatic, if we ever do run out of fossil fuels before we find an alternative, hundreds of millions of people will starve.
Although science might eventually come up with something less destructive than nuclear energy at the moment there is nothing else that comes close to its power generation ability. For all of its terrible risks, nuclear energy is still the best option we have. Freedom requires energy.