The nuclear disaster unfolding in Japan is bad enough; the nuclear disaster unfolding in China could be even worse."What disaster?", you may ask. The decision taken today by the Chinese government to suspend approval of new atomic power plants. If this suspension were to become permanent, the power those plants would have produced is likely to be replaced by burning coal. While nuclear causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right, and coal goes right a lot more often than nuclear goes wrong. The only safe coal-fired plant is one which has broken down past the point of repair.
Coal, the most carbon-dense of fossil fuels, is the primary driver of human-caused climate change. If its combustion is not curtailed, it could kill millions of times more people than nuclear power plants have done so far. Yes, I really do mean millions. The Chernobyl meltdown was hideous and traumatic. The official death toll so far appears to be 43 – 28 workers in the initial few months then a further 15 civilians by 2005. Totally unacceptable, of course; but a tiny fraction of the deaths for which climate change is likely to be responsible, through its damage to the food supply, its contribution to the spread of infectious diseases and its degradation of the quality of life for many of the world's poorest people.Coal also causes plenty of other environmental damage, far worse than the side effects of nuclear power production: from mountaintop removal to acid rain and heavy metal pollution. An article in Scientific American points out that the fly ash produced by a coal-burning power plant "carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy".Of course it's not a straight fight between coal and nuclear. There are plenty of other ways of producing electricity, and I continue to place appropriate renewables above nuclear power in my list of priorities. We must also make all possible efforts to reduce consumption. But we'll still need to generate electricity, and not all renewable sources are appropriate everywhere. While producing solar power makes perfect sense in north Africa, in the UK, by comparison to both wind and nuclear, it's a waste of money and resources. Abandoning nuclear power as an option narrows our choices just when we need to be thinking as broadly as possible. (*)