Monday, March 14, 2011

Japan on BBC and German TV

This image from the BBC is wrong. It should be a pie chart for electricity, not "energy" -- as a quick search at Wikipedia reveals, oil makes up roughly half of Japan's energy supply, which is what I would expect. Nuclear makes up less than half of what the BBC reports.
As the dire events in Japan apparently continue to worsen, I can't help noticing some clear differences in the reporting on the German public television and the BBC (which is what I have at home). On the BBC, there has been a lot of talk over the weekend about how markets will react and how what is going on compares to Three Mile Island. A number of nuclear experts in business suits from this or that institute or university have come on to explain the technology to the general public.

In Germany (in my subjective perception), there was absolutely no talk about stock markets over the weekend (though that changed slightly today after the Nikkei opened), and comparisons are made primarily to Chernobyl, not Three Mile Island. Nuclear experts explaining what is exactly happening have prominently included people like Michael Sailer of the Institute of Applied Ecology and a handful of nuclear experts from Greenpeace; spokespeople from nuclear institutes have been few and far between. While the folks from Greenpeace generally look like a 30-year-old PhD students in physics in casual wear, Sailer outright looks like a hippie from the 1970s.

I say that not to disparage Sailor and the folks from Greenpeace; indeed, you take these folks lightly at your peril. They will explain current law, the history of nuclear power, and the differences between Japanese and German nuclear reactors in great detail, so if you want to oppose them, you have your work cut out for you. Sailer himself is the chairman of the German government's Nuclear Waste Commission.

I wonder whether such people would be taken seriously in the UK – or the US, for that matter; but alas, I do not have US TV at home. My feeling is that, whatever their actual expertise, critics of nuclear power would need to look like conservative businessman to be heard out.

As I was writing this, there was also a report on the BBC about how events in Japan might change Germany's plans to extend the lives of its nuclear power plants beyond 32 years. I tend to agree with German Environmental Minister Röttgen, who says that we need to focus on what has changed. Just because an accident happens does not mean that the risk of nuclear is any greater. As I wrote back in my book (published in 2006 but completed in 2005):

... nuclear power plants should not be built in areas prone to natural disasters like earthquakes, such as Japan, which has 52 plants. As Leuren Moret, the whistle-blower from the Lawrence Livermore Nuclear Weapons Laboratory’s Yucca Mountain Project, recently put it, “Of all the places in all the world where no one in their right mind would build scores of nuclear power plants, Japan would be pretty near the top of the list.”

So we knew such accidents could happen. As Röttgen points out, what we now know is that the precautions taken at nuclear plants in Japan were apparently not great enough – the plants may have been insufficiently protected against tsunamis, and they were designed to withstand earthquakes up to a magnitude of 8.2, whereas they got magnitude 9.

Röttgen seems to be suggesting that German nuclear plants should be reviewed with an eye to increasing safety requirements considerably. As Sailer points out, nothing has been done to the plants over the past decade since they were expected to be taken off-line anyway. Germany may very well decide that far stricter safety requirements are needed, and power companies could then react by opting to shut the plants down instead.

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