Columnists: Hans Nilsson, Fourfact

Published on: 14 Mar 2011

Failing the stress tests

 

The world has in a short period witnessed two events that put an unforgiving and cold spotlight on our modern society, showing its vulnerability. One is of course the Japanese nuclear accident that is a tragedy as it is, with a risk of becoming a horror beyond comprehension on top of all the plights from earthquake, tsunami and cold spells. We in the rest of the world all feel paralysed and in anguish since there is so little we could do to help from a distance. It adds to our frustration that it is so unfair to a people who in terms of energy have done so much more than the rest of us to economise and conserve.

The other set of events is in North Africa, with the Libyan people now fighting for freedom and democracy.  That is having a serious impact on oil supply and prices. Some commentators are even saying in the business press that this is a serious threat to our fragile economies.

Both events can be seen as stress tests in which we have failed. Is there any chance that we can learn and improve? Or will we continue to live as if technical failure can never occur again or to live with a blind eye to that our prosperity is partly built on the serfdom of others?

In the case of the nuclear power, those of us who are old enough have seen three major accidents – Harrisburg (Three Mile Island), Chernobyl and Fukushima. In all the cases we have also seen the pro-nuclear lobby claim that:

  • It was not really an accident but rather an incident, nobody died (Harrisburg).
  • It was an effect of a corrupt communist system (Chernobyl).
  • It is old construction in rare zones of geological instability (Fukushima).

And the conclusion of all are that “It cannot happen here – and not again”. Mostly since it has already happened – and in another place (to paraphrase a genial Swedish comedian Tage Danielsson).

Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies in New Delhi, comments on the need of water for cooling of nuclear reactors that the French reactors require half of the total French use of fresh water for their cooling and that, in recent years, they had to reduce their production for a few summers when the river temperature was too high.  This need for cooling is seldom discussed but it is obvious that the issue is not trivial and not local to Japan!

In Sweden the authorities that handle nuclear waste are now facing the problem to decide if they can take responsibility for waste disposal that will have to remain stored away from all living for the next 100 000 years. That is ten times longer than since the last ice age and almost double since the first humans departed from Africa into Asia to spread over the world.

Both cases – oil and nuclear – show that we are far too dependent on a high level of supply and on centralised systems. The American comedian Jon Stewart recently showed that the eight (8) latest US presidents over a period of 35 years have all and in almost identical words stated that now is the time to reduce dependence of oil. A reduction that did not take place and in some cases was replaced by another dependence such as nuclear.  How many now s do we need?

It can be done! In the last half of 2010 there have been at least 3 major studies ( The European Climate Foundation’s Roadmap 2050 , Greenpeace’s energy [r]evolution and WWF’s The Energy Report ) showing the world can use much less energy, with energy needs coming from renewables. It is not rocket science. It is just common sense and decency that we need.


Other columns by Hans Nilsson