03/14/2011 05:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Does Japan's Nuclear Crisis Mean for the Climate Movement?

Like everyone, I'm shocked and horrified by the tragic events unfolding in Japan. I have a deeply ingrained fear of earthquakes having grown up on the San Andreas fault, but the triple whammy of an unimaginably massive earthquake, a devastating tsunami and a nuclear nightmare is beyond anything even I have ever imagined.

The news that 60,000 people participated in a peaceful anti-nuclear demonstration in Germany on Saturday was the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal weekend. It filled me with hope -- an important reaffirmation that the spirit of peaceful protest, which was the keystone of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s is alive and well. And even better, there were no pre-emptive mass arrests.

This isn't something I take for granted these days. Just last week, I participated in a high-level workshop in Copenhagen involving activists, human rights lawyers, police and government representatives exploring the question of whether in our post-911 world, tolerance for public dissent has narrowed.

My presentation focused on the tcktcktck campaign's experience in the run-up to the 100,000-person climate march in Copenhagen on December 12, 2009 where nearly 1,000 people were arrested, most of whom merely for exercising their right to participate in a peaceful march. Police in cities all over the world use the practice of "kettling" -- cordoning off and arresting large groups of demonstrators -- as a means of removing a handful of violent (or even potentially-violent) individuals.

The Copenhagen City Court ruled in December 2010 that these mass arrests were illegal, citing their violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, but the case is under appeal.

One speaker pointed out that since the September 11 attacks, there has been an increased focus on prevention. It began with terrorism but there has been a chain reaction extending from organized crime all the way down to more petty criminal activities, apparently including window-breaking at mass demonstrations. But others pointed out that any clampdown on peaceful channels of protest only leads to frustration, increasing rather than diminishing the likelihood of violence. As one young participant noted, the massive pre-emptive arrests in Copenhagen, in Toronto during the G20 and elsewhere has led to the increased radicalization of a new generation of activists. It's as if we decided to prevent cancer by pre-emptive radiation therapy rather than by promoting healthier lifestyles.

It occurred to me that ironically enough, it is our failure to pay heed to the benefits of prevention that is at the root of the climate crisis. The UN climate convention (which 190 countries, including the U.S., ratified and are legally bound by) states that "The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures..."

All of this was on my mind as the crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power station began to unfold. I couldn't help but think about the promises made by an industry that for decades has peddled nuclear energy as clean, reliable, safe and (in recent years) even climate-friendly -- reassurances that literally exploded before our very eyes. While watching CNN International's earthquake coverage on Sunday morning, I thought about the fundamental disconnect between what we were seeing, and what the authorities were telling us.

At around 4 AM EST, this was the stream of headlines:
  • Third reactor fails at troubled Daiichi nuclear plant
  • 20 km around exploded nuclear plant has been evacuated
  • An estimated 170,000 people have been evacuated
  • 3 people near a nuclear plant test positive for radiation exposure
  • Nuclear reactor meltdown could lead to wide release of radiation
  • WHO: health risk to Japan's public "quite low" following radiation leak
  • Govt: radiation levels down since blast, no immediate danger

The contrast between the terrifying experience of those on the ground as they lined up to be tested for radioactive exposure on the one hand, and public officials understandably trying to ward off panic on the other, could not have been starker.

But government reassurances about nuclear safety are not limited to times of crisis -- and I'm not referring specifically to Japan but to every government that sold us this bill of goods -- and it's going to be a long time before public trust is restored. Those who argue that nuclear power is a risk worth taking as we move to a low-carbon future must now face up to the grim reality that there is a chance that something could go wrong... very, very wrong. Its proponents must bear the burden of proof and demonstrate that its benefits outweigh its total lifecycle costs including risks to public health and the environment. Let's then compare this to a similar cost-benefit analysis of a future based on renewables like solar and wind and make rational choices.

In the meantime, my heart goes out to the people of Japan, and my hat goes off to the people of Germany.

Please add your comments below on whether you think nuclear power is a solution to climate change.