Saturday, October 8, 2011

Fukushima - personal perspective

I'm no expert in energy in general or nuclear power. I'm just a traveler and observer and this is what I see about the reaction to Fukishima.

I work in Asia Pacific, a massive area that contains billions of people who all approach life a bit differently. My job is to find solutions to problems that cross as many boundaries as possible and when they can't, optimize locally. 

I just spent almost two weeks in Beijing during their best season, Autumn. There were actually days I saw the blue sky and enjoyed walking outside - but still the ash fell on my keyboard and made me take notice. And those were notable because of their rarity. Beijing is not the worst in terms of air pollution in China; Linfen regularly disappears from satellite images because of the pollution from coal factories. It has been shown that the smog from China impacts California, compounding their own locally produced problems. The three of us who spent more than a couple of days in Beijing all ended up sick - all side effects of pollution.

I arrived in Tokyo carrying my cold and spent 24 hours sleeping it off. When my body recovered I opened my window to a view of the famous Shibuya intersection. Famous for how crowded it is. And yet, there was the blue sky. The mega city of Japan bustled with people and industry, yet it was not choked by coal. Why? Because a large portion of their power is nuclear. 

Fukishima was a horrible lesson in how risky nuclear power can be, and now 76% of Japanese want to reduce their dependency. Understandable given their recent tragedy. But what if the poll were phrased: "Would you rather have continuous air pollution that makes your people sick or the manageable chance of a nuclear meltdown?" I say manageable because despite the system being as complex as it is, and despite all the earthquakes and human mistakes over the decades of Japan's growth, this is the first time they came this close. If anything, this should serve as the warning light on the global control panel for nuclear plants to improve, not shutdown. We get better when we make mistakes and we learn from each other. If we give up on this technology that we know so much about we probably go back to the dirty, cheap choking coal, because, sadly, the next generation of energy sources is not ready to produce the amount of energy we need. 

Perhaps this is just what Japan needs to be the ones who produce that new energy source that does. They are restricted in their energy use here and barely made it through the summer without blackouts. Necessity is the mother of invention after all. I'm all in favor of that, and wouldn't it be ironic that their use of nuclear power led to their freedom from it. No one can plan innovation, we can simply do our best to create environments that allow it to happen. And then hope that a miracle (like a near meltdown?) happens.