Skip to content

The world is about to enter a no-fly zone for energy policy, a period where nothing gets off the ground. Here we have a globalized economic system filled with unprecedented energy options, but where all options appear to be politically off-limits. If it comes to that extreme, as seems probable in the short-term wake of the Japanese nuclear meltdown, the battle will be fought with mind-spinning claims and counterclaims, distortions, lies, exaggerations, misrepresentations.

Activists and corporate interests on all sides of the energy policy debate bring their own brands of hysteria and manipulation. The media are in full throttle. Politicians are scrambling.

Who can sort fact from fiction even now?

Nuclear power: Costly and a perpetual risk to human health. In the wake of the Japan nuclear disaster, the industry is now at least temporarily a global pariah. Decisions are being delayed, plans reviewed, options re-evaluated. Fear-inducing references to Chernobyl, Hiroshima, radiation doses and cancer scares abound.

Fossil fuels: Relatively cheap but killing the planet’s climate and ruining the environment. Carbon taxes and regulations are in development all over the planet to cut back on coal, oil and gas as sources of electricity and motive power.

Wind and solar: They come at crippling costs to energy users and in any case cannot possibly fill world energy demand as replacements for either fossil fuel or nuclear power. Many countries, especially in Europe, have reduced support for renewable. Wind also brings new environmental and health concerns.

Hydro power: Cheap, but it ruins ecosystems, especially when deployed at Three Gorges scale. While technically renewable, hydro power faces opposition from green groups.

In the eyes of the public, all sides look suspect. The warnings of pending carbon doom from climatists and the official science powers at the United Nations are increasingly doubted by a public that likes the carbon policy options even less than it likes the science. Climate change deniers and critics, meanwhile, continue to be vilified. But who’s to say?

On nuclear energy, touted by proponents as the great alternative to carbon-based energy, the critical storyline has for decades been filled with claims of regulatory cover-ups, unreported radiation leakages, corner-cutting and massive cost overruns and construction delays that run to decades.

From Chernobyl to Three Mile Island and now to Fukushima, the claims and counterclaims have followed the same twisted path. Opponents of nuclear energy join with journalists who, ignorantly or innocently, stoke fear. During the Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979, New York Post columnist Jimmy Breslin famously wrote of vapours rising from the plant: “The steam was evil, laced with radiation.” No such radiation escaped, but the health scare had been perpetrated.

Today, Japanese and other nations are being driven to panicky states by alarmist claims of radiation risk and corporate malpractice. Fukushima is now said to be the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, implying risks of a repeat of a massive human disaster. Even when radiation escaped from Chernobyl, the human health impacts were minimal to non-existent to all but impossible to detect outside of the workers immediately fighting the disaster.

According to Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts, a 2006 revised UN review of the Ukrainian nuclear disaster, less than 200 people died from acute radiation, all of them workers. Of 600,000 people in the area, about 100,000 cancer cases came from expected, non-radiation causes. Of those, there “might be” an increase in fatal cancers by about 4,000 brought on by radiation. But the radiation doses were small and the incidence of cancer and disease were difficult to isolate and identify.

Other measures of radiation impact at Chernobyl were even more inconclusive. Of course, this was a UN study and who knows what cover-ups lurk in the reports and studies that downplay the radiation?

As the Japanese nuclear meltdown plays out, the new energy policy stage is being set: Everything is possible, but nothing is acceptable. Take the case of Germany, where Green Party activists are playing up the Japan disaster. Chancellor Angela Merkel responded with a moratorium on extending the operating life of the country’s 17 nuclear reactors. Germany and other European countries have recently also reduced economic incentives to wind and solar as too expensive. Germany is also keen on reducing fossil-fuel dependence.

No country can do all three: cut nuclear, cut renewables and cut fossil fuel. Seizing the nuclear crisis as an opportunity, renewable power firms are trying to stage a comeback. “Renewables could be ready to provide 47% of German power supply up to 2020,” said the German renewable industry lobby group — a preposterous target that implies wind and solar could replace all of the country’s nuclear plants and some of its coal plants.

The world is about to enter a monumental and slightly demented economic and ideological battle over energy policy. At the end of the battle, the most likely winner will be the energy source that is cheapest, works best and offers the lowest risks. It will be hard to beat the fossil fuels we know and trust.

Financial Post, 17 March 2011