Tempting nuclear power plants and how to solve the energy question

In reply to a comment from Patrick S.

Considering its “rating” as low-carbon energy source, nuclear power makes a very tempting form of energy production. However, considering the hazard its remains impose on us and the whole planet and knowing that there is still no answer to the question as how to properly treat radioactive waste, it is definitely not a viable alternative – not from a moral ground nor a “legal” one. Most countries have adopted the precautionary principle as a core element of environmental law, so why should it be tolerable to do something that produces a problem (the radioactive waste) that will remain a huge hazard for thousands of years and thus is simply another legacy for future generations?

6166605Nuclear power plant in the Rhone Valley (France), sarcastically called “Cote atomique”[1]. (Photo: Panoramino)

Nuclear power is prove of how reckless, unreasonable and short-sighted we humans are. A life span of thousands of years for the hazard stands in very big contrast to the very short lived memories and contradictory moral of our societies, as 25 years of political debate in Switzerland have shown (I stronly recommend to read this rather unknown part of my country of birth).

In addition to the waste problem, Fukushima is more than prove enough that nuclear power can’t be managed to the point of “low risk” and considering the ticking time bombs we are sitting on in Europe, it shouldn’t surprise to see the day when more disasters will happen.

17503635If the massive painting is there to remind us of the legacy we impose on future generations? (Photo: Panoramino)

So what else can we do besides of investing in renewable energies or technical adaptation?

Well, the answer is quite simple and straight-forward if one dares to think in a holistic way, something lamentably rarely encountered and less so at political level.
If a system is at or beyond its limits, what can we do to bring it back into a stable situation? Reduce, reduce, reduce. We know that on a global scale we consume too much; too much of everything. Overconsumption of natural resources is that main problem of human society and cause of thousands of others. However, considering that 2.4 billion of people live on less than US$ 2 a day, that 1.3 billion of people don’t even have access to electricity and that a big part of the rest contributes relatively little to overall consumption and pollution, we might find that a “sustainable” world population of homo sapiens should probably not be bigger that 2-3 billion of people, at least if we wanted to have a similar lifestyle to that of developed countries as of today. I’m not saying that it’s a crime to have children, but not having them is definitely the most direct approach to mitigate climate change. And of course, having global policies that regulate populations would even be more effective.

Another form of reduction can be achieved by changing our lifestyles. It has long been pointed out that a vegetarian diet can significantly reduce our carbon footprint. Less travel will have another huge impact: we travel too often and too far. Besides, some people wrongly assume that using public transport is totally green – it’s not, walking, cycling or staying at home is. That is, as long as you don’t turn on the air conditioner. I believe that nowadays and on a global scale, we consume more energy for cooling than for heating (a wink to all those who say: “we don’t need insulation, ‘cause we live in a hot country”). This mainly, because we have forgotten that sweating or feeling a bit hot doesn’t hurt. I observe people going to the air-conditioned gym only because they can still look like a movie star after 30 minutes of running on a belt. Guys, do you know how “clean” I feel after running for half an hour at 28° at the open air?

The beauty of nature is that it comes in cycles. Less modernized societies have (or had) well adapted to that. In SE Asia people get up at 4am when daylight starts and go to bed at 9pm. The traditional siesta in Spain seems very natural, if you’ve ever spent a summer there.
We could make much more use of natural cycles. Many trades’ people still work longer hours in summer, when days are long and the weather favourable to work outside, and reduce during winter. On the other hand, most of us live a life that knows no seasonality, nor daytime. We go to an air-conditioned bank with dimmed light that looks exactly the same 365 days a year, same as the clerk in his grey suit and the black tie. Isn’t it the roaring of the fan in the bank in Nandi or Marrakesh, the sweat on the face of the lady waiting in line in front of you for 40 minutes while waving her fan, that makes us remember our holidays? Not long ago our lives were not as sterile as they are nowadays and we could consume those impressions back home. Sweating is not a crime, nor is wearing an extra jumper against the cold in winter. And who knows, if we inspired our daily lives with a bit more naturalness, we might not need to travel so much to exotic places.

You know that I could go on and on and that there are millions of other examples I could write down. I believe that all of us have simple means to reduce our individual environmental footprint. And again, a really big change could be done by accordant legislation. For example by subsidies for eco-friendliness instead of subsidies for pollution, by more restrictions for polluters or mandatory internalization of environmental costs.

It might require radical changes in society to address current environmental and social challenges. Yet despite of its vigour as energy source, nuclear power is not the answer. Considering the ticking time bombs millions of people in Switzerland and elsewhere have to put up with due to their proximity to worn-out power plants that won’t be shut down as promised due to enormous costs for decommissioning the plants, we should refrain from further investing in a long-term hazard for which we will likely never find an adequate treatment.

[1] In reference to the well-known wine “Cote-du-Rhône” grown in the same valley.


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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4 Responses to Tempting nuclear power plants and how to solve the energy question

  1. Patrick S says:

    Thanks Urs – interesting perspective – particularly the Swiss history with bunkers!
    Over in the public transport world we’re quite interested in the ‘direct democracy’ there as Paul Mees, one of this country’s leading public transport scholars and advocates who passed away recently, thought the referenda results blocking plans for expanded underground metros and motorway systems was a pivotal point leading to the city’s much-vaunted effective tram system today. It is an interesting story, be good to have a chat about the referendum system over a beer some time.

  2. Pingback: Extreme heat in Melbourne and how avoiding McDonalds can help enjoying good tennis at the Melbourne Open rather than talking about the weather | Ideas for a greener environment, a fairer society and a future driven by sustainability

  3. Pingback: Why recycling is not good enough | Ideas for a greener environment, a fairer society and a future driven by sustainability

  4. blaubear says:

    Update: http://www.nzz.ch/aktuell/schweiz/atomkatastrophen-radius-fuer-jodtabletten-verteilung-auf-50-kilometer-ausgeweitet-1.18226691.
    As an answer to Fukushima the Swiss government has decided to enlarge the “iodine-zones” around nuclear power plants in Switzerland from 20km to 50km with the result that there are now 4.6 million out of the 8.0 million (58% instead of 1.2 million or 15%) citizens that get the “survival kit”.

    Not sure how safe they feel but quite impressive to see how easy it is to satisfy tax-payers. Free iodine-pills against another decade of a nuclear catastrophe threat seems like a cheap deal to me!?

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