Sooner or later -- if it hasn't happened already -- someone is going to write the words "the ongoing nuclear incident at the Fukushima power plant is producing fallout of a non-nuclear sort." There ya go, pun committed. You don't have to do it now. The nuclear industry and their apologists are trying their damnedest -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- to convince everyone that nuclear power is safe. Their best defense, at this point, is the "it's not as bad as Chernobyl" line. This is like appearing in court and arguing your innocence based on the fact that you aren't Jeffrey Dahmer. It's not extremely convincing because it's not remotely logical -- especially if you're the second worst serial killer in history.
And that's the best parallel -- remove Chernobyl and Fukushima is the worst nuclear plant incident in history. And it puts a crimp in nuke backers' plans.
It was going to work like this: spurred on by fears of global warming and high oil prices (as if power plants run on gas), the world was poised to begin what many called the "nuclear renaissance," where extremely complex triumphs of technology would soon be boiling water all over the world (that's all a nuclear plant does, by the way; run a boiler to turn an axle -- it's basically a steam engine). But if the prospect of radioactive tea kettles whistling from Des Moines to New Delhi seemed like a tolerable idea before, it's become a lot less attractive now.
The frightening nuclear crisis in Japan, even if it turns out less cataclysmic than many fear, has cast additional doubts on the future of nuclear power as a clean-energy solution in the United States and around the globe.
Before the earthquake and tsunami damaged nuclear facilities in Japan, the world had seen a surge of nuclear reactor projects, and the talk in Washington was of a "nuclear renaissance" as a way of slowing down climate change and weaning the U.S. from its dependency on petroleum. President Barack Obama made a pitch for nuclear power in January during his State of the Union address, saying it could set "clean energy" standards for the country.
But utilities and their investors were already cautious about committing money toward nuclear projects and insisted on government subsidies and loan guarantees. Now the word is that the crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear complex is likely to cast another cloud over the hoped-for renaissance.
I thought we were all free-market/austerity now. If nuke plants can't find investors, then clearly the market has spoken, right? I mean, who wants an industry that needs to be bailed out before it even gets off the ground? Obviously, St. Ayn Rand frowns down on the nuclear industry from beyond the grave.
And let's keep in mind that one of the most disturbing aspects of this is the fact that it's Japan -- the nation synonymous with the highest technological advancements. Chernobyl was almost understandable; a then-crumbling former Soviet nation still in the throes of an economic catastrophe and a facility built by engineers with no concern for human or environmental safety -- gosh, what a surprise. Fukushima isn't in some third world nation or some struggling former Soviet republic. It's right in the middle of "we're building robots now" land, where the initial release of the iPhone was greeted with yawns.
But another thing that should concern Americans is our sudden turn from a "can do" to a "can't do" spirit. It was widely reported after the initial earthquake that house Republicans had voted to cut funding for tsunami monitoring. These are the same Republicans who have deregulation fever. Meanwhile, our infrastructure has been ignored for so long that it's crumbling -- like a former Soviet republic. And Republicans demand to cut even more.
In short, take an industry that needs government assistance to survive, add government spending cuts, mix in a whole bunch of deregulation, and you've got a half-assed nuclear facility. This is the way we do things in the new Republican reality -- half-assed, all the way, every time. Do everything the absolute cheapest way possible, then cut it some more. Then you can afford tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations. If the United States were to build a bunch of nuke plants right now, we'd be building a bunch of half-assed nuke plants. I'm trying to think of a stronger word than "guarantee," because I can more than guarantee you this would be the case. We'd have half-assed nuclear plants dotting the landscape from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.
When we're committed to having as strong an infrastructure as Japan, then we'll be able to fail as well as Japan is failing right now -- which is still pretty badly. At the moment, we can only fail worse.
And, for that, you can thank the biggest boosters of the nuclear industry: Republicans.