While thinking of how to sum up 2011, I looked backwards to my last blog post from 2010 and was jarred by the similarity of the two years.  There it all was again: the same sort of political scandals, the same news of war in the Middle East, the same tedious celebrity hijinks–only the world shaking environmental catastrophe had changed (the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was supplanted by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster).  It made me question the optimism of last year’s New Year’s post, in which I ultimately concluded that technology was rolling forward and thereby bringing us both knowledge and the resources needed to live a better happier life.

So this year I am going to base my final post around the worst thing that happened in 2011: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.  This spring, three nuclear reactors on the northeast coast of Honshu melted down after being shaken by an earthquake and inundated by a once-in-a-lifetime tsunami. Designed in the sixties and manufactured in the early seventies, the reactors were an old design.  Mistakes made by engineers trying to rectify the situation initially compounded the problem.  This event has already been responsible for several worker deaths (although those occurred not as a result of radiation but rather from disaster conditions caused by the earthquake and flood).  It is estimated that, over the coming decades, fatalities from cancer could ultimately stretch up into the tens or perhaps even the hundreds!

Hindsight is 20/20, but, seriously, was this the best place for a series of fission reactors?

The fear generated by the incident has caused a global anti-nuclear backlash.  Plans for next-generation nuclear plants have been put on hold while existing power plants have been shut down.  Germany is exiting the nuclear energy business entirely.  Japan is building a host of ineffective wind plants and setting its advantages in fission power aside.  Developing nations like India, Brazil, and South Africa are reassessing their nuclear power plans.  The United States is suddenly building more gas power plants.  Even France is backing away from nuclear energy.

Anti-nuclear demonstrators march in Cologne (AP Photo/dapd/Roberto Pfeil)

Of course cold-blooded, analytically-minded readers who missed out on the media circus around the Fukushima incident might be wondering why a few (potential) deaths outweigh the 20,000 victims who were killed by the tsunami outright, or the hundreds of thousands of people killed worldwide in traffic accidents, or the millions of victims of North Korean famine.  Those kinds of casualties are all very ordinary and dull whereas the people who (might possibly) die (someday) from nuclear contamination face a very unusual, rare, and scary end.

Isn’t it worse that ten men might someday die of cancer then 10,000 men die outright from coal mining accidents?

Well no, not really.  The hype around nuclear accidents was used by fear-mongers to peddle their energy agenda–on the surface this might seem to be earth-friendly green energy, but since such a thing doesn’t really exist yet, the beneficiaries of nuclear power’s decline will be oil and gas producers, who are already operating the largest and most lucrative industry on earth.  Additionally the whole crisis allowed media sources to garner viewers and readers by means of frightening headlines (in fact that’s what I’m doing with this post).  The nuclear industry must become bigger to fit the needs of a world running out of fossil fuel (but with a quickly growing population of consumers).  Additionally our next generation of technology will likely require more energy rather than less.

Nigerians fight an oil pipeline explosion which burned hundreds of people to death

But, thanks to a disaster involving equipment that was four decades out of date which killed two people (from blood loss and contusion), humankind is abandoning the pursuit of inexpensive inexhaustible green energy for the foreseeable future.  At best, the next-generation nuclear designs now on the drawing boards or in early stages of construction will be reevaluated and made safer, but at worst we will fall into a long era of dependence of frac gas and foreign oil–a gray age of stagnation. Our leaders will greenwash this development by pretending that solar and wind energy are becoming more effective—but so far this has not been true at all.

I hope my flippant tone has not made it seem like I am making light of the tragedy that befell Japan, a peace-loving nation which is an unparalleled ally and friend.  I really am sad for every soul lost to the tsunami and I feel terrible for people who are now forced to live with the nebulous fear of cancer (especially the brave workers who raced in to known danger to fix the stricken plant).  Similarly, I worry about the Nigerians burned to death in pipeline accidents, the Pakistanis killed in friendly fire accidents, and the bicyclists run over by minivan drivers. To care about the world is to worry and face grief.

Tsunami Memorial Stone

But coping with such worries and sadness is the point of this essay.  Our fears must not outweigh our bright hopes. We must keep perspective on the actual extent of our setbacks and not allow them to scare us away from future progress. Only bravery combined with clear-headed thought will allow us to move forward.  Undoing this year’s mistakes is impossible but is still possible to learn from them and not live in fear of trying again.  I wrote about the energy sector because of its primacy within the world economy—but I dare say most industries are facing such a crisis to one extent or the other.

If we turn back or freeze in place, we will be lost–so onwards to 2012 and upward to great things.  And of course happy new year to all of my readers!

[And as always–if you feel I am utterly misguided in my energy policy or any other particular, just say so below.]