What Japan's nuclear crisis means for all of us

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.

Tyler Bryant is the energy policy analyst and Ian Hanington is communications specialist at David Suzuki Foundation, which first published this story.

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