What Does Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown Mean for our Energy Future?

Written by Annie Sartor

Topics: Clean Energy, Coal, Finance

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Energy Shouldn't Cost LivesJapan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster have dominated headlines around the world since news broke last Friday. Thousands of people have died in Japan over the past few days, and many more are at risk of radiation sickness from the ongoing nuclear power plant meltdown. My heart aches for all of the families in Japan who are suffering this week.

Of the hundreds of news reports covering these one-after-another disasters, one Bloomberg article caught my eye with a very interesting question: how will Japan’s nuclear meltdown impact the future of energy?

As the nuclear meltdown in Japan continues, the conversation about the impact this disaster will have on our energy choices is an interesting one. There seem to be two competing answers: expand the use of coal as a clear alternative to nuclear power, or push for clean energy, like wind and solar, that does not explode, spill or meltdown. Which would you choose?

Apparently, two of the biggest coal mining companies in the world, Siberian Coal Energy Co. and OAO Mechel, have responded to Japan’s energy crisis with a plan to increase coal shipments to Japan by 3 million to 4 million metric tons a year. The stock market also seems to point to coal as a good alternative to nuclear, at least at this moment in the news cycle. The Wall Street Journal reported that coal companies including Peabody Energy, Consol Energy, Alpha Natural Resources, Cloud Peak Energy and International Coal Group are trading higher since the nuclear plant explosions.

However, the New York Times is reporting that solar and wind stocks are surging amidst nuclear fears as well. The demand for renewable energy is picking up. With Bloomberg reporting that: “Equipment makers for solar and wind energy climbed as much as 27 percent, rallying for a second day on speculation that clean energy will benefit in the aftermath of Japan’s nuclear-reactor accident.”

It is disgusting to think that any company, dirty energy or clean, would “benefit” from this disaster. However, it is also horrifying to imagine that as a global community we would not heed the warnings that disasters like the BP oil spill and this week’s nuclear meltdown are sounding.

As country’s like Germany and Switzerland suspend plans for nuclear plants and fear over this unstable fuel justifiably surges around the globe, we have two paths for our energy future: to stay the course, pumping our countries full of coal, oil and nuclear energy, or transition to renewable sources of energy like solar and wind.

In my estimation, replacing nuclear energy with energy from burning coal is a foolish path. Coal has a long and shameful history of devastating accidents, including the TVA coal ash spill in December 2008, which dumped 2.6 million cubic yards of fly ash across hundreds of acres just outside Knoxville, Tennessee, and Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine explosion in April of 2010, which killed 29 miners. These are just two recent examples from the United States. It would take a much longer blog post to cite all the recent accidents at coal plants and mines around the world.

The debate around the future of nuclear energy will surely rage for many months. It is critical that those of us who have been watching the disaster in Japan unfold not let pundits, politicians and journalists decide to replace one dangerous power source for another.  Energy shouldn’t cost lives.

6 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Catherine Allen says:

    It seems to me that the meltdown is the worst thing that could have happened to Japan and to the world. When are we going to wake up and realize that everything that we do to this earth can not be taken back.. The oil spill for instance destoyed an eco system and a rather large body of water and despite what BP and our country says it’s far from better. Now this potential meltdown, is it a sign we need something far less toxic and renewable? I believe it is and there are so many alternatives. Hemp is one of our biggest cash crops in the country that has been proven to not only be clean but safe and renewable as far as energy is concerned. All of these things are great to talk about except there is one problem. Money.. Those corporate criminals do not care about the earth or the people they care only about money and I highly doubt that they will agree with a better solution when it rules their livelyhood out.

  2. MJ says:

    What, pray tell, do you suggest we do? Coal is supplying 50% to 60% of the grid while wind and solar are contributing somewhere in the very low single digits. Think of how much time, land use, and financial capital would be required to bring those feeble sources up to a level that can compete with the real muscle of coal? New technologies are making coal less harmful to the environment and the human population. Ash basins such as the one that failed the TVA are being outlawed. Fly ash, SO2, and mercury emmisions are being scrubbed and reduced by nearly 99%. As for the risks to workers; wouldn’t it be wise to let that up to those that do the work? OSHA regulations require extensive safety training in the industry. All who go in to the mines or climb the boilers know the risks. While you overstate the danger from you keyboard, a lot of men and women are aware of the real level of danger and choose to make a good living doing this important work right here in our own towns. You are standing on the shoulders of them and the many that came before. Accept wind and solar as a small supplement. Help the coal plants clean up not close down. Or… get ready for the lights to go out.

  3. Jessica says:

    It worries me deeply that people still believe that coal could ever be safe for the environment. Aside from trying to make coal ‘safe’ what about the effect creating these mines has on the environment. Toxic drainage water from these mines threaten local fresh water supplies, in mountaintop romoval, ridges and summets are removed and dumped into stream valleys. I could go on about the negetive environmental effects of coal mining. The previous response leads one to believe the only good way to create energy is through coal. The amount of energy available from wind here in the US is enormous. The states of North and South Dakota along with Texas alone could meet all U.S. electrical needs. The California coast with Pacfic and Central Valleys during the months of April to October would match peek electrical demands. There is more energy around us than we could ever need and as a renewable source. Not one that strips the earth and leaves a toxic path. We have to change our energy ways ( mining, nuclear) or we will be worring about a whole lot more than not having our lights on!!

  4. After this occurrence everyone will closely watch if safety rules on nuclear plants have been satisfactorily reached. We have to look further to search for more options of sustainable energy sources. I believe that scientific research will be more supported to obtain new results soon.

  5. igmuska says:

    Alert: Necroposter Mode – Now that almost a year has passed since the Fukushim-Daiichi catastrophic failure, do we need more proof that nuclear energy causes more problems than it solves? Will we realize that our conscience should not end at that point where we plug into the wall outlet? We are responsible for accidents in the energy industry, we suffer the consequences of that accidents. Our responsibility lies in making our children’s energy future be filled with hope, and not left swimming in a tangled soup of disaster…

  6. Caprise says:

    We have to stop doing the bad things we should do the good thing starting right now!!!

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