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2022-10-27

Updating My View of Nuclear Power


I am concerned about climate change, and what's clear to me after studying several resources is that we cannot discuss the planet's future without thinking about how quickly and safely human society can adapt to using nuclear power at scale. That is, the speed of climate change is just too urgent to rely fully on the other actions we can think of, such as improving consciousness of CO2 emissions, understanding technological advances and adapting our consumption patterns (e.g., buying an EV car, eating less beef), accelerating government-led, collaborative effort on making a city greener, and rethinking a driving force of the capitalistic world. All of them are effective and important, but a key takeaway is that we'd need to prioritize them wisely and establish the most aggressive portfolio given the urgency.

Challenges

Talking about nuclear power is not easy (and is often considered a sensitive topic as it's strongly tied to political stances and directly relevant to our health). In my case, as a Japanese person who closely experienced the 2011 Fukushima "disaster"1, I still spend a hard time making a fair assessment of the technology even though people commonly make optimistic statements, including but not limited to Bill Gates and the author of a New York Times best-selling climate book, as well as some of my climate-conscious friends.

I hear them, but my experience of spending four years at a university near a devastated area readily makes me emotional and constantly hinders me from thinking rationally. How can I ignore the stories like some of my friends lost their homes due to the mass evacuation, I was then continuously exposed to the news about the deaths of those who were in a similar situation (not because of radioactive exposure; more of a social or psychological issue), and I did literally feel economic damage caused by misinformation? No, I can't.

This way of thinking, however, is completely irrational and lacks scientific perspectives. And in fact, none of the stories speaks about the technology itself; the memorable incidents are more about humans rather than machines or physical substances.

Current state

I finally came across a book A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow through the author's interview on a Freakonomics Radio episode Nuclear Power Isn't Perfect. Is It Good Enough?

A Bright Future lets my brain cool down by providing a comprehensive view of the topic, not only about the technical advances but surrounding non-technical discussion points—safety measurement, waste management, psychological effect on our perception, human rights in developing countries, the role of politics, and economic impact behind it—although the podcast later commented that there was "a lot of feedback" from pro-nuclear listeners, I see the book has done a great job by dealing with these wide-ranging concerns and is highly useful for updating our understanding of nuclear power.

Consider driving a car or using a smartphone: none of the technology-driven solutions is zero-risk, and what A Bright Future tries to convey is that the known risks of nuclear power are much lower than the anticipated immediate risks of climate change. Moreover, the chances of seeing extremely-rare failures have been reduced further by new reactor designs and waste management facilities.

Notice that subtle radioactivity exists everywhere in our daily life—The annual radiation of a person living their entire life with the latest long-lived nuclear waste repository can be estimated as high as "eating a bunch of bananas"2, for example. I do see the authors' strong frustration against the anti-nuclear movement through how they repeatedly state the urgency & safety in many different ways.

Moving forward

Overall, it was a great, eye-opening learning experience and did help me to update my view of sustainability development at large. Since the situation changes so rapidly, I'd like to use A Bright Future just as a stepping stone so I can keep my understanding/behavior up-to-date (e.g., the book was published in 2019 with a strong hope on Russia's role, but the war in 2022 might bring new perspectives; one of the authors is a Swedish energy engineer, which may or may not pose some biases to the content of the book that emphasizes how successful Sweden's energy strategy is).

Ultimately, systems thinking is vital for the environment because we are talking about the eco-system; the world is complex, and we can address real-life problems by neither an "A vs. B" nor "good or bad" binary framework. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, for instance, clearly highlighted the fact by demonstrating a chain effect caused by the negative externalities. Alternatively, the earth must diversify its environmental portfolio while rethinking how individuals and policy-making people can produce & consume the information through the lens of both science and humanity.

1. It's a double-quoted "disaster" because the historic major incidents at nuclear power plants were due to preventable human factors like an operational error at Chernobyl and poor risk management against tsunami at Fukushima. According to A Bright Future, a decision on the mass evaluation and consequential psychological and social issues caused a lot more deaths than the ones from radioactive exposure, and hence the authors simply put it as "panic" rather than disaster or incident. Meanwhile, the replacement of energy sources in Japan & rise in its price is considered another unintended consequence of the event.
2. Page 120 in a hardcover version of A Bright Future.

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  See also

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Last updated: 2022-10-27

  Author: Takuya Kitazawa

Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, minimalistic traveler, ultralight hiker & runner, and craft beer enthusiast. While my area of specialty is in data & AI ethics and machine learning productization, I have worked full-stack throughout the career e.g., as a frontend/backend engineer, OSS developer, technical evangelist, solution architect, data scientist, and product manager. You can find what I am doing lately at my "now" page, and your inquiry is always welcome at [email protected], including comments on my blog posts.

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