Sinking Islands, Nuclear Power, and Social Costs

When it comes to climate change, the island nation of the Maldives, a double chain of twenty-six atolls nestled in the Indian Ocean some three hundred plus miles from its nearest neighbor, India, is widely believed to be a bellwether. With an average elevation a mere three feet above sea level – the same elevation by which sea level is predicted to rise over the next century – the Maldives are on a fast track to obsolescence.

While the nation is constructing an exit strategy – most notably the creation of a man-made island called Hulhumalé – it’s also in a paradoxical situation. The islands current economic survival is highly dependent on carbon-heavy resort tourism, with visitors and resources flown in from around the world. Points out a recent Conservation Magazine Article:

The country desperately depends upon the carbon-powered prosperity that’s heating up the atmosphere and raising sea levels…it is a microcosm of an unsustainable society—running out of space, running out of potable water, running out of time. It imports nearly everything and exports only trash (recyclables, to India) and a dwindling catch of tuna. In Malé, population density has doubled since 1980; with 75 percent of the demographic under the age of 35, it has the potential to do so again in short order. Nasheed has compared the Maldives to Saudi Arabia—”They have oil, we have tourism”; like an OPEC nation, the Maldives has a toxic relationship with its primary resource.

While few people, except perhaps residents of the similarly low lying nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati, can directly relate to having struck such a Sisyphean bargain in which their economic survival is inversely correlated to their actual survival, this is not a situation unique to the Maldives. Many of us sit a world away uneasily watching Japan’s nuclear catastrophe. Like the Maldives, the Japanese made a decision to grow their economy today and worry about their continued survival later and now after the devastation of an earthquake, and a tsunami they are sadly facing a nuclear catastrophe.

My goal is not to wag a finger at the Japanese. Both the Sunlight Foundation and Mother Nature Network have released maps showing that in the United States, for example, many of the nuclear power plants are located in areas of significant seismic activity. While in France during a 2003 heat wave 17 of the nuclear power plants dependent upon to, in part, provide the electricity to help cool the population, had to be turned off or significantly scaled back because of overheating issues.

Yet when these events happen – ranging from a radiation leak, to a partial meltdown – we immediately argue faulty design or human error. While this may technically be true, it beggars the question can we design a nuclear facility that has neither of these risks?

Nuclear supporters would argue that inherent in life are risks, and that is true, but when we talk about risks, much as when we talk about climate often those who take the risks and those who must bear the cost of that risk are two separate group. Whether nuclear makes sense from an environmental conservation or a sustainable development perspective involves complicated assessments that do not begin and end with its lack of carbon emissions.

Points out Mohamed Nasheed the first democratically elected president of the Islamic Maldives, “Once or twice a year, we are invited to attend an important climate-change event—often as a keynote speaker. On cue, we stand here and tell you just how bad things are. We warn you that unless you act quickly and decisively, our homeland and others like it will disappear before the rising sea, before the end of this century. We in the Maldives desperately want to believe that one day our words will have an effect, and so we continue to shout them, even though, deep down, we know that you are not really listening.”

Since nuclear power first became possible in the 1950’s not a single decade has gone by without at least a partial reactor meltdown. In six decades of trying we have yet to get it right – we’ve been just lucky enough to not get it terribly wrong. As we gaze with a mixture of shock, horror and hope, at the plight of our Japanese kin - are we listening?

Photo Credit: Sarah Ackerman