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Worldwide energy debate

A View From the Edge

It wasn’t the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that started the discussion, but they heightened the awareness of the risk to nuclear power plants. But what’s more, the failure, Chernobyl-like, of the Japanese plant, Fukushima Daiichi, has swung the “undecided” voting public in many countries to “no nuclear” — and Switzerland leads the way. There is no doubt that the energy debates globally have been changed from the bottom (coal) up (solar).

Last Wednesday, the Swiss cabinet voted to decommission the country’s five nuclear power plants and to fund new energy resources to replace them. In Germany, a very influential panel has called for the decommissioning of all of Germany’s nuclear plants.

OK, neither are laws, passed in the equivalent of their Congress, yet, but political and public pressure is there and is overwhelming. And it is worth remembering that in Switzerland there are two strong factors to predict such closure laws will be passed.

One, Switzerland threw away 30 days of all farm production after Chernobyl because of the radioactive cloud fallout that dropped on the Alps.

Two, Switzerland has binding referendums that are the highest form of law, not possible to be overturned. The public wants the nuclear plants gone.

Energy Minister Doris Leuthard and other Swiss energy officials said, “We have to consider whether we want to live with this risk. Nuclear energy has become more expensive in recent years and the cost will only increase in the future.”

But will they be willing to pay for the replacement of 40 percent of the country’s power? For a country with no national debt and no unemployment, the answer — in polls only — is 75 percent yes, we can afford to. My guess is those power plants will go bye-bye within 10 years. Sound like a long time? Nope, it takes that long to safely take them apart. Meanwhile, what about replacement energy?

“We’re looking for an economy that is sustainable as a whole,” said Christian Zeyer of Swiss Cleantech, a sustainable economic association. The plan — federal budgeting is underway — is for the nation to turn to hydropower, wind energy, biomass and solar.

“We can get by just fine, not immediately, but we’ll get there by increasing renewable energies. It is good for industry and for the country.”

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Merkel’s panel, which says to get rid of their nuclear power plants, has gotten her endorsement. Mrs. Merkel said that Germany would certainly end its reliance on nuclear energy and that “the only question was how long nuclear would be needed as a bridge technology” until other forms of energy could ramp up to meet needs.

Countries, including Japan of course, are all evaluating — in the negative — their desire to keep these plants running. Prime Minister Naoto Kan said on May 24 that Japan would scrap plans to build 14 more nuclear reactors while it considers closing all those they can afford to close until other energy can be found.

In the end, in those countries, the demise of nuclear energy wasn’t the long-demonstrated against side effect of nuclear energy (plutonium to make bombs), nor the risk of long-term storage of the used radioactive rods.

No, in the end it was Mother Nature showing that even the great structures of puny man are no match for her focused energy. In Japan it was a tsunami. With Chernobyl, it may have been man-made errors that set it off, but it was the wind and clouds that carried the poison to 400 million people.

Just think what the tornadoes of last week could have done to a nuclear power plant and how far the radioactive debris would have carried — and the health and economic havoc it would have caused to every American.

Peter Riva, formerly of Amenia Union, lives in New Mexico.