You can hear all kinds of opinions about what to do with nuclear energy and also about what is rational or not. Many such opinions are driven by ideology and not by facts. After the Fukushima disaster, I followed some tv debates and I witnessed how in many occasions the defenders of nuclear energy accuse the opponents of irrationality, of exploiting the fears of people after a nerve wrecking event to sway the public opinion. The argument goes that we should rationally evaluate the case without being too much influenced by the heat of the moment. I agree with that fully. BUT…
We need to recognize the facts rationally including and foremost that we are dealing with humans! We do have fears, maybe irrational and they do influence the world. Ignoring those real fears is not rational, it is just stupid. Take fear of radiation into account and the damage of nuclear energy becomes much bigger. Few things terrify us like radiation. And for good and rational reasons. Radiation exposure is so bad that it easily makes it into the top ten of horrible things of all time. Contrary to tsunamis, black plagues and giant meteorites is entirely man made. People are so scared of it that will avoid japanese fish (no let’s make it asian) because it might be contaminated. Less people will vacation in Japan. Rational? Maybe not. Real? For sure. Additionally this level of widespread fears are known to leave individual and social psychological scars. How do you value hundreds of millions of people scared, worried, anxious? So the first point is that the nuclear fear effect must be taken into account into the cons of nuclear energy.
So, first, nuclear is so bloody scary, and for proven reasons named Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Secondly, there is to take into account the precautionary principle that is used in industrial safety analysis (I am a chemical engineer and I am quite familiar with the process). Risk assessment looks at the size of the danger and the chances of danger. For example a big tank of 10000tons of gasoline is much worse than 60liters tank in your car. The good thing about nuclear energy is that it is a phenomenally concentrated and compact source of power, therefore efficiently harvested exploiting the economy of scale effect (i.e. very big power plants). For example to produce the same energy with solar panels you need to occupy a land surface orders of magnitude bigger **check figure, but is really big**. But that very useful concentration of power is also the unavoidable source of major risk. The nuclear fuel in current reactors wants to react in its normal state. It must be actively stopped to do so. Therefore nuclear fuel is “fail unsafe”. All the talks about fail safe systems are bogus unless the fuel, when all goes wrong it stops the fission. The tsunami proved how the backup generators systems of Fukushima were taken down. The magnitude of damage in case of nuclear incident is enormously big, stuff that goes in history books, like the plague, the Huns. So, second, the magnitude of disaster is so big (also because of point 1) that chances should not be taken, however small.
Third, are chances so small? In a few years we had two major disasters in two modern countries that were not at war and there was not an intentional sabotage, that is when things were going well. Given that nuclear installations and waste last very long, and that the track record of humankind over a few hundred is at least worrisome (all out wars, mindless terrorism, fanatical revolutions, breakdowns of civilizations) it is clear that chances of trouble are not so small.
Fourth, will energy end? Never, the planet is awash with it. What can end is dirt cheap energy. If the economy progresses well, we can devolve more and more resources to energy. harvesting and conservation.
There is a problem though, and is of course of economic reasons. Nuclear produces around 15% (+++check figure+++) of electricity, particularly in OECD countries. If all nuclear plants would stop tomorrow, there would be major pressures on the cost of other energy sources, which are already under pressure due to rising demand and the decline of cheap energy. (Thankfully millions and millions are getting out of poverty). Again it’s not a problem of lack of energy sources, but rather of the economic means to get it. Alternatives to nuclear also produce more CO2. Some countries, above all France, are heavily dependant on nuclear.
Therefore the solution is clear:
1) immediate global moratorium for all new plants. No more plants will be built until a very major improvement in safety is demonstrated, probably never.
2) gradual, slow (25years?) and planned shutdown of all plants, starting from the less safe. It is essential that the mechanism is clear and definitive and -again- slow, in this way the market can adapt well. The mechanism should be driven by the UN, and a compensation scheme should be put in place for the countries that need to convert. Clearly, it cannot be argued that such a problem is pertinent to the national decision, as nuclear clouds travel very far and increased CO2 emissions and pressure on energy supply is also a global problem.
If we stop all nuclear plants, we also get some help towards reducing the risk of nuclear weapons… Two birds with one stone. Here we touch a sore point…the strategic relevance of nuclear plants, see the row with Iran. But this just reinforces the point that nuclear energy growth must be stopped now and then slowly stopped for good.