For all those who would despair after the March 11 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, remember this: Japan has experienced worse devastation, buried more, and endured even more terrible horrors. From the shadows of World War II, the Land of the Rising Sun emerged to become the second-biggest economy in the world, a title it only recently lost to China.
The earthquake and the tsunami that followed were terrible disasters; no nation should ever lose the thousands that died in a few hours, the infrastructure wiped out, or endure the creeping fear of radiation exposure now hanging over the country. Events at the Fukushima nuclear plants remind us that Japan is still in danger, this time from the technology it relied upon for economic progress and social advancement. But even these dangers shall pass.
Japan will rebuild again, and these terrible events will enter its annals, as a reminder both of the fragility of life and the renewing strength of hope demonstrated in the stoic attitude of a people that would not be beaten down, not by natural disasters or anything fellow humans throw at them.
This is not a blog meant simply to pump up Japan. The Japanese know how to energize themselves and forge the social cohesion they need to drive the country's recovery. In recent weeks, the world has been encouraged by the admirable grace of the Japanese people in the face of horrible adversity. This article and next in the series will focus instead on the need for electricity and the dangers involved in its production. Japan, as it rebuilds, will need the very same thing that today threatens its northern coastal region. The curse and blessing of nuclear technology is starkly demonstrated in Japan's struggle to tame its Fukushima reactors.
The lessons from the earthquake are not for Japan alone, however, but also for every other nation on earth — basically, everyone that today depends on nuclear energy for power supplies. The dilemma facing the world is this: How do we balance our need for electrical power with the reality that its production often depends on technologies we don't fully understand and cannot truly tame?
How will a world that has become so dependent upon electricity ensure adequate supply of this critical resource? The answer won't come from placard-waving citizens and environmental activists. The same innovative and daring types who invented nuclear technology will have to figure out for the rest of mankind how to generate power safely, distribute it efficiently, use it judiciously, and protect society from its destructive force when things go awry.
Shutting down aging nuclear facilities as Germany is doing, postponing or terminating plans for new plants in the case of China and Great Britain will not solve this problem. These short-term measures will prove quickly useless once the greater need for power comes banging on the door. It may be possible to safely harness nuclear power; we just have to figure out a way to do it.
According to the World Nuclear Association “nuclear power provides about 14 percent of the world's electricity, almost 24 percent of electricity in OECD countries, and 34 percent in the EU.” Here's more on the topic from the World Energy Outlook 2009 published by the OECD's International Energy Agency:
- From 1980 to 2007 total world primary energy demand grew by 66 percent, and to 2030 it is projected to grow at a slightly lesser rate (40 percent, average 1.5 percent per year, from 503 EJ to 703 EJ). Electricity growth is almost double this, and is projected to grow 76 percent from 2007 to 2030 (growing at average 2.5 percent per year from 16,429 TWh to 28,930 TWh) in the reference case. Increased demand is most dramatic in Asia, averaging 4.7 percent per year to 2030. Currently some two billion people have no access to electricity, and it is a high priority to address this lack.
With the United Nations predicting world population growth from 6.6 billion in 2007 to 8.2 billion by 2030, demand for energy must increase substantially over that period. Both population growth and increasing standards of living for many people in developing countries will cause strong growth in energy demand. Over 70 percent of the increased energy demand is from developing countries, led by China and India.
Preparing for that future of increased energy need will require a more strategic approach than simply disbanding all nuclear facilities or junking all proposals to build new ones. Yes, nuclear energy can be destructive, and there are efforts afoot to develop alternate power sources, but we cannot ignore the realities of growing global electricity consumption.
No nation could have ever been prepared adequately for the events of March 11. Unleashed nature stole upon Japan, and despite damage-management experiences garnered over centuries of straddling nature's fault lines, the country still crumpled under the hammering force of a power everyone could only observe in awe. If only it had stopped there. Japan is reeling today, not simply because nature washed ashore, but also because technology turned its fearful powers against its creators.
Perhaps we will never tame nature, and we may be unable to fully control the fallout of nuclear technology. But as we cower today in fear of what might happen at the Fukushima plants, all of us who have enjoyed the bounties of the ocean and the advances fueled by electrical power must push forward with Japan in trying to better understand earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear energy.