Thursday, November 24, 2011

Support for Nuclear Power:

The Bright Spots in the News

While the negative news always gets the most attention, several recent news items suggest that opinion on nuclear power is not as bleak as the headlines sometimes suggest. As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, it is nice to reflect on some recent positive news items.

A couple of months ago, the Japan Times conducted a post-Fukushima on-line survey asking which route is the most viable for Japan: sticking with nuclear power, solar, geothermal, wind, hydropower, biomass, or a mix of these, but with reduced reliance on nuclear energy. The survey has now closed, but the results are available (at least temporarily) on line.

Out of the 4149 votes cast, the percentage saying to stick with nuclear power (16%) is actually higher than solar (10%), geothermal (10%), wind (3%), hydropower (3%), or biomass (1%). The highest response (58%) is for a mix of the above, but with reduced reliance on nuclear energy. In light of the events in Japan this year, I would regard this response as a strong indication that the public recognizes the issues. While they are understandably shaky about nuclear power at the moment, they are realistic enough to understand that it needs to be a part of the energy mix for the foreseeable future. What is particularly interesting is that they place sticking with nuclear power significantly above any single alternative. This response seems far removed from the news items that focus on the small numbers of protesters.

I do recognize that there are questions they did not ask in the survey. They did not ask whether Japan should rely on a mix of those other alternatives, but without nuclear energy; they did not ask whether Japan should rely on a mix that included more fossil fuels (or, in fact, that included any fossil fuels). I don't know why they didn't ask such questions, and I will not speculate on what the answers to such questions might have been. Whatever the flaws of the survey, I still find it compelling that nuclear power received a significantly higher vote than solar or wind power, which are so often touted as total solutions to our energy needs, or to geothermal power or biomass in a country that has a lot of both.

(To see the actual numbers, click on the hot-link above, then click on the beginning of the survey question described as: "As outlined in a recent series, Japan is being forced to weigh its options for sources of energy. Which route do think is the most viable?", dated 2011-09-30 - 2011-10-21. Clicking after the first 3 words takes you to the series they cite. I do not know how long the Japan Times leaves the surveys up.)

Several prominent individuals have also spoken out, either in favor of nuclear power, or against the uncritical acceptance of renewables.

A couple of weeks ago, the Dalai Lama toured the area of Japan affected by the earthquake and tsunami. To the surprise of many, the Dalai Lama said that nuclear power needed to be considered in the future. To me, the most important part of his message was that people should look at the issue "holistically." “Just to look at it from one side then to make a decision is not right,” he said. He recognized the role of nuclear power in helping address the needs of people in developing countries, and the fact that solar and wind energy are too inefficient to meet these needs. His message was very balanced, as he noted that the nuclear industry needed to look at the potential risks holistically as well.

More recently, Britain's Prince Philip blasted wind farms as being a "fairy tale." This comment, of course, was not about nuclear power, but about a technology that is often cast as a viable alternative to nuclear energy. While his history of outspoken remarks may make some wonder how seriously his comments will be taken, it was clear that his opinion was based on the need for back-up capacity. I should also note that his remarks were apparently targeted towards land-based wind turbines.

Even discounting the remarks of Prince Philip--after all, they are at odds with the official policy of the UK government, which has committed to building more wind farms--the news holds a message for me. The positive results of a public opinion survey, even in Japan, and the rational voice of the Dalai Lama, who is often considered a source of moral judgment, suggest to me that there is growing recognition of the continued need for nuclear power.

With that, happy Thanksgiving to all!


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