Photo: What Japan's nuclear crisis means for all of us

Earthquake and Tsunami damage, Japan-March 16, 2011: This is a satellite image of Japan showing damage after an Earthquake and Tsunami at the Dai Ichi Power Plant (credit: DigitalGlobe).

By Tyler Bryant and Ian Hanington

Our hearts go out to the people of Japan, who have suffered and continue to suffer in the wake of the recent terrible earthquake and tsunami. To make matters worse, the horrendous natural disaster has been compounded by a human crisis in the making.

The world is watching as reports emerge about the shutdown of nuclear power plants and subsequent radiation leaks. Our immediate concern should be for the people of Japan, but at the same time, people here can't help wondering how this will affect us.

Health authorities have assured us so far that the radiation leaks do not pose a danger to people on this side of the Pacific Ocean. While we will continue to monitor the situation and keep abreast of the most credible information we can find, we also see this as further reason to take a hard look at our energy use and sources.

It was almost a year ago that people were calling the David Suzuki Foundation in the wake of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Some people have rightly pointed out that the damage and danger from fossil fuel energy can be more deadly than that of nuclear. But as events in Japan are showing, nuclear is far from a benign source of energy. When disaster strikes, it can be devastating to human health and the economy.

The need to properly assess the impacts of our energy options and to promote a sustainable future is more important than ever. We have developed and put into use a technology before we know all the consequences. Energy production to satisfy our electricity consumption has consequences and tradeoffs. Climate change caused by burning fossil fuels is a threat to our planet, nuclear disasters and nuclear waste are potentially significant threats to our health and ecosystems, and even renewable energy sources can have impacts. It's time we took a close look at our energy use and energy sources in order to find better ways of providing for our needs. We can all start doing our part by using less energy.

The David Suzuki Foundation has also joined with the Canadian Academy of Engineering and the Trottier Family Foundation to consider Canada's energy options as part of the Trottier Energy Futures Project. What can we do to limit our strain on this energy production system? How is our energy use leading to overinvestment in potentially dangerous energy sources? And how can we factor in energy sources with fewer environmental impacts? These are some of the questions that the Trottier Energy Futures Project will attempt to answer as it develops a sustainable energy future for Canada. We look forward to working with Canadians to determine what this system should look like and what we can do to get there.

For now, we must not forget the people of Japan, and we must do all we can to help, including donating money through the Red Cross and other organizations. Japan is probably better prepared than any country to deal with the effects of natural disasters, and we can all learn from the example set by people there. But all of us need to do more to prepare, and that includes looking at the consequences of our energy systems, in light of both natural and human-caused disasters.

Oil spills and the damage they do to plants, animals, and habitat; nuclear waste and radiation; pollution from coal plants; climate change — the costs of our current energy use are far too high. We need to consider the alternatives.

We will continue to watch the situation in Japan. In the meantime, here are some useful website links for helping the people of Japan and for learning more about the situation there.

Take a geologic journey with The Nature of Things for details of what is happening in New Zealand and Japan, and what will happen on the west coast when the Big One hits.

March 16, 2011

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Apr 26, 2011
8:56 AM

I agree with this article and pray for less use of the nuclear fuel to solve the problem of energy in the name of development. We should think of our civilization rather than rapid develiment. Let our earth have a constant peace.

Apr 25, 2011
4:02 PM

There will be a shortage of Uranium in the future if nations start depending upon one technology. I ask the politicians, industries, scholars, and citizens to start thinking about how shortage of energy sources will daily affect our lives. The more we vote for parties that make more roads rather than alternative, green, and efficient transit systems as well as giving more subsidies to oil-drilling projects, the more we will decrease the lifespan of the planet earth that we call home. It will be a shame to stay inactive and not care about these things because our next generations will suffer from our past mistakes.

Apr 20, 2011
9:58 AM

Unfortunately there are many countries that have no choice but to use nuclear power because of their limited space and natural resources. It does have the capacity to generate a large amount of electricity but as we have seen in Japan it does have a huge safety concern. Currently green energy does not have the capacity as conventional energy. You would need a thousand wind generators for the average nuclear power station. Also green energy like solar and wind don’t provide a real benefit to the grid as their source is very unstable and most conventional power plants must still run at regular capacity to be able to supply the grid with power in the event the wind dies down or it clouds over. We definitely need a better energy source, that being fusion. It’s clean but that technology is still many years away.

In the short term we really need to focus on energy reduction. In I think we need to reward households and companies that reduce their energy consumption. So we have power consumption levels defined for households based on number of people living, area of country, time of year (for parts of the country who have less/more hours of sun), then if you go over that amount you pay X% more per kwh and if you are below, you pay X% less per kwh. We also need to do the same for businesses using size of facility, number of employees, amount of good manufactured, etc as guidelines for their consumption levels. Doing this for electricity and gas consumption for all of North America would cut our consumption enormously and give us many years of releif on our energy demands. The big problem is that no government would do this. Although we are nearing an energy crisis in our country, government officials unfortunately would never take this hard line. That means energy conservation is left up to the individuals and businesses. And with no real incentives to do this, we have few people and businesses taking it serious. Maybe we need to start implementing roaming brown outs to show how serious this is?

On a final note, slightly off topic I just want to touch on gas mileage. I’m still trying to figure out what’s wrong here. A 1982 toyota corolla was getting 44 mpg and a 2010 is getting 35 mpg, both the same size engine. So why has 30 years of technology given us worse gas mileage? That 4 cylinder corolla should be getting 55-60 mpg now. This is totally and utterly ridiculous and unacceptable. I’m not saying there is a conspiracy here but someone is making an enourmous amount of money off this.

Apr 03, 2011
4:27 AM

~Wanna help Japan? I found a link that you have to check out~ PACT helps countries save lives and reduce suffering.

Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy, and it’s Global :D

"Thank you for your generosity in helping PACT save lives and lessen suffering." PACT
Apr 02, 2011
7:33 AM

~What’s happening in Japan is…no words can describe that! I was thinking…money would only help them temporarily, in the ‘Dr.Suzuki’ spirit, SCIENCE!!!! People should start donating to the sciences, ‘nuclear related cancer research (they’ve already got a start on it, cockroaches seem immune to the effects of radiation)

I'm not sure where we'd donate (Any Ideals)... ... Japan NEEDS our help~
Mar 31, 2011
11:09 AM

wow!! we should really start caring about my planet more

Mar 17, 2011
12:46 AM

@ Heather Stock

In your post, “Guess what their projection for electricity generated in the year 2030 is? Nuclear 46%, Water 20%, Conservation 14%, Wind 10%, Solar PV 1.5%, Bioenergy 1.3%.”

How come there is now Gas/Oil use in there? Did you forget to put it in or does that mean there won’t be and gas/oil use?

Mar 16, 2011
9:34 PM

I saw Force of Nature the other day great stuff and so pertinent to the problems that are happening in Japan and their nuclear problems. Ride bicycles, more wind mills, solar,etc etc. Buy products, food, on and on that have less packageing and are made of more natural materials and process’s, vote with your wallet. TVO just aired a program regarding over population, do we really need 9 Billion plus people by 2050, we are like a rude infection on this beutiful planet we call home, we can’t return it to the store for another one. David through all the years you’ve said these things, I’m a fan and sometimes that is adequate instead of running the air conditioner. Keep up your inspirational dialogue and perhaps enough people can wake up and act responsibly enough to save our home world. Thank You

Mar 16, 2011
1:13 PM

I had begun to think that we as a species were ready to manage nuclear energy but in light of the situation in Japan I guess not in my lifetime.

Mar 16, 2011
1:02 PM

The Ontario Government reports that currently the electricity that is generated in Ontario is as follows:~ Nuclear 52%, Water 19%, Gas/Oil 15%, Coal 8%, Conservation 4%, Wind 2%, Bioenergy 1%.

Guess what their projection for electricity generated in the year 2030 is? Nuclear 46%, Water 20%, Conservation 14%, Wind 10%, Solar PV 1.5%, Bioenergy 1.3%.

That means Nuclear Power Plants are not going anywhere anytime soon. It’s a disappointing fact that the Ontario Government is not pursuing solar PV more seriously with a higher target for 2030. Very disappointing!!

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