The unfolding events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan are more than a human and environmental disaster. The cooling problem and subsequent radiation leaks that are contaminating food, land and water are tragic reminders of the dilemma facing a growing world population that is demanding increasing amounts of energy to fuel higher levels of production and consumption. The rising complexity of technology, the looming shortage of resources and the physical limits imposed by a finite planet all compound this dilemma. Indeed, Fukushima Daiichi is a symbol of the fragile successes and the menacing failings of our sophisticated age. Thus Japan is providing a glimpse into the future of every modern society everywhere.
Just as modern Japan arose by embracing industrialization at the end of the Tokugawa Period, it also arose from the ruin of World War II by embracing technology. And the Japanese success has been stupendous. Within a few decades of the wreckage of 1945, it had become the second largest economy on the planet - it is now third, after recently being overtaken by China. The world is full of Japanese technology, innovation and products: electronics, computers, digitization, cars, ships and robotics. Its manufacturing, buying and consumption habits affect the economy of the world.
Although modern Japan has a people who are dedicated and industrious, it doesn't have the local natural resources to empower this capability. So it imports vast quantities of raw materials and exports them as finished products. And it has solved its energy problem by adopting nuclear power, the same kind of technological sophistication that has brought it other successes.
Japan is the third largest user of nuclear energy in the world. Its 55 nuclear reactors are clean, efficient and perfectly tailored to the compact, dense and vigorous character of the country. The reactors are also an ideal match for the profligate use of energy that powers Japan's industry, cities, trains, entertainment and communication systems. Indeed, Japan's social, cultural and economic vitality seems to be more closely connected to massive quantities of electricity than almost any country in the world. The humming activity of Japan is synonymous with the humming current coursing through its ubiquitous power lines.
The choice Japan made decades ago to adopt nuclear power as the solution to its energy needs is now a choice confronting the rest of the world. The other options seem fraught with shortcomings. Coal, although plentiful, is polluting, and its high carbon dioxide output makes it the worst possible energy source on a planet subject to the looming effects of greenhouse warming. Most of the world's hydro-electric potential has already been harnessed. Oil is almost as dirty as coal, and its supply is on the verge of falling below demand. Renewable energies such as wind, solar, tidal and geothermal may not be able to meet the growing needs of industrialization, consumption and population. Conservation and efficiency, although helpful, can't seem to compensate for rising energy use. At the time and under the circumstances, Japan's decision to go nuclear seemed a smart strategy.
But the twin traumas of a massive earthquake and a huge tsunami have changed this calculus. The near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 and the explosion at Chernobyl in 1986 come flooding back as vivid, cautionary memories. Nuclear waste still remains an unsolved problem. Now the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi - Japan's third nuclear disaster after Hiroshima and Nagasaki - are a reminder that the technology, regardless of the precautions and safeguards, is complex and unforgiving. Any human error, laxity or failed foresight can reap horrendous consequences. Are the risks worth the benefits?
The answer is not apparent in the changing economics of energy production. A new nuclear power plant takes 10 years and $6 billion to build - a cost that is rising rapidly as increasingly stringent safety measures have to be incorporated into designs. A comparable coal plant takes 3 years and $3 billion - coal is plentiful but dirty and sequestering its carbon is expensive and unproven. A gas plant can be built in 2 years at a cost of $1 billion - although shale gas is now being found in massive quantities, the "fracking" required to release it from rock may contaminate groundwater and aquifers, and it still produces about half the carbon dioxide of coal. The only wholly positive option is clean, renewable energy sources. Its efficiency is increasing and its cost is decreasing - but critics contend this technology is not yet remotely capable of meeting our huge energy needs. Conservation, too, is only a partial solution.
So this brings the subject back to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. The unfolding disaster there is an existential moment, a crisis that is an opportunity for everyone on the planet to awaken to the energy dilemma facing us all. The Japanese have responded with heroic calm to the multiple calamities of earthquake, tsunami and radiation. Some workers have undoubtedly sacrificed their health and lives to keep Fukushima Daiichi from becoming another Chernobyl.
Although we are not required to be so brave, Fukushima Daiichi is a vivid reminder that the time has come for us to think very, very seriously about our own energy needs, lifestyles and priorities. Whether or not we have noticed, the unfolding events in Japan are an object lesson for us.