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Nuclear Power R.I.P.?

What is it about the word “radioactivity” that drives otherwise rational people to utter panic?

As I write this on a Wednesday morning, Japan continues to reel in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake and tsunami. The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station—shaken by the 9.0 earthquake and slammed by the tsunami—remains fluid and precarious. There have been three explosions at the station, one at each of three reactors. The cores of the reactors appear to have at least partially melted, and one seems to be on the verge of a major meltdown. The other three reactors at the plant are experiencing difficulties.

This is a serious situation. People living within a 20-km radius of the power plant have been evacuated; people living within a 30-km radius have been advised to remain indoors with their homes sealed and ventilation turned off. Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the station, has evacuated all but 50 of the 1,400 people who work at the plant. At one point today, even those 50 brave individuals were withdrawn from the plant because radiation levels had spiked.

Around the world, politicians and commentators are pointing at Fukushima and insisting that the events there prove that nuclear energy can never be safe and that the world should snuff out the nascent embrace of nuclear energy as one answer to global climate change. In yesterday’s Washington Post, the normally level-headed Anne Applebaum has an op-ed piece entitled “Slow the Nuclear Rush.” She concludes that she hopes the Fukushima disaster “prompts people around the world to think twice about the ‘price’ of nuclear energy, and that it stops the nuclear renaissance dead in its tracks.”

On the same op-ed page, reliably liberal columnist Eugene Robinson writes: “Nuclear power was beginning to look like a panacea—a way to lessen our dependence on oil, make our energy supply more self sufficient and significantly mitigate global warming, all at the same time. Now it looks more like a bargain with the devil.”

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal continues the paper’s excellent coverage of the earthquake and its aftermath. It includes a story entitled “Potassium Iodide Runs Low As Americans Seek It Out” that describes a run on potassium iodide supplies by people worried that radioactive fallout from Fukushima could reach the U.S. Anbex Inc., which manufactures Iosat potassium iodide pills, quickly sold out its stock of more than 10,000 14-tablet packages on Saturday, the paper reported. Anbex President Alan Morris told the Journal, “Those who don’t get it are crying. They’re terrified.”

In Europe, legislators are calling for a referendum on the future of nuclear power. German elections a couple of weeks from now could be affected by the nuclear power issue. President Obama feels the need to reiterate his support for renewed construction of nuclear power plants in the U.S.

Could everyone please get a grip? Thousands if not tens of thousands of Japanese are dead as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. Hundreds of thousands are homeless. A vast swath of northeastern Japan has been demolished; it is estimated that rebuilding will cost $35 billion or more. Japan’s economy has been dealt a devastating blow that will take months to years to recover from.

The fate of the Fukushima nuclear reactors is important. If one or more of the reactors experiences a full-scale meltdown, it will be a true disaster that will affect many people’s lives, in Japan and likely around the world. If that happens, what went wrong will have to be investigated thoroughly and understood to help prevent it from happening again.

But it will not be the end of the world, and it should not be the death knell for nuclear power. We live with risk. The risk of exposure to radiation from any one of a number of sources, including the partial or complete meltdown of the core of a nuclear reactor, is one such risk, quantitatively no different from any other. Nuclear power must be a component of the mix of energy sources for the world in the 21st century, the situation in Japan notwithstanding.

Thanks for reading.

11 Comments

  • Mar 16th 201109:03
    by Bertfel Meyers

    It seems the cadmium rods, pushed in and out, can’t control the reaction and, consequently, the overheating inside the reactor.

  • [...] plant in Fukushima. I watch some of the news reports with sheer horror. I am not experiencing an irrational reaction at the mention of radiation or radioactivity, but rather it is at the gobsmackingly mishandling of the principles of nuclear chemistry and [...]

  • Mar 16th 201111:03
    by Sergio Palazzi

    I was thinking reasoning people had disappeared, maybe washed away by the tsunami along with thousands of people which nobody seems to care about. At least, reading your paper make me think that there is some survival.

  • Mar 17th 201109:03
    by Curious Wavefunction

    Thank you for injecting a voice of sanity in what’s predictably turning into a debate infused with alarmist and irrational overtones. When something goes wrong with a system, the right thing to do is to undertake a review of existing systems and propose improvements, not to call for their abolition.

  • Mar 28th 201123:03
    by nedclark

    I must take strong exception this blogster’s cavalier sentiment:

    “We live with risk. The risk of exposure to radiation from any one of a number of sources, including the partial or complete meltdown of the core of a nuclear reactor, is one such risk, quantitatively no different from any other.”

    You do not have the right to decide what risks can be unilaterally imposed upon thousands, even millions of innocent persons living dozens, or even hundreds of miles down-wind from a nuclear power mishaps, if you cannot make each of those persons whole following such a mishap (and you cannot).

    You do not have the right to declare that some arbitrary level of radioactive contamination is `acceptable’ for other millions of people who may rely on plant or animal foods from areas tainted by radiation releases.

    You do not have the right to decree that whole swaths of land may be rendered uninhabitable for generations by human folly or blunder or greed. Nor do you have the right to condemn future generations of entire family lines to the terror of not knowing whether- or when some cells in their bodies – or in the bodies of their children…or children’s-children – will suddenly mutate & turn cancerous. And it is not up to you to decide that a death by radiation-incepted cancer is `quantitatively no different’ from any other way to die.

    You do not appear to have the wisdom to realize that just because mankind CAN tinker with forces beyond our controlling, that we somehow have the right to TRY it, anyway – regardless of the potential consequences.

  • Apr 16th 201108:04
    by Pam Randle

    Opponents to nuclear energy do not suggest that there will be no survivors or that a nuclear power plant catastrophe will kill everyone of our 300 million citizens (only thousands may die). The fact that Japan has dumped their radioactive filth into the Pacific Ocean could, and probably will, have an effect on others in the future. Cesium-135 will be deadly for 300 years and, while 3 million gallons of water is only a drop in the bucket, there is no guarantee that none of it will wash ashore in the US. That’s a major question when any amount of plutonium is lethal. You seem to believe that it’s okay to gamble with the lives of others for the rewards of profit for the utility industry (which will not pay for anything or be responsible for either wastes or liabilities). Fish supplies are known to be reducing and studies indicate that supply will not meet demand in as little as 50-60 years. Dumping radioactive water into the seas won’t do a thing for these estimates. It’s true that we must invest in our energy supplies and infrastructure, and that rewards are never without risks. Some of us prefer not to gamble what we can’t afford to lose – and it’s not up to others to make that decision for us.

  • May 2nd 201107:05
    by Tee Kay

    http://freethinking2day.blogspot.com/
    Visit this interesting blog.
    A shorter version and easy to understand.

  • May 14th 201113:05
    by Mike Scantlebury

    Mr Editor, your thoughts are calm and considered, and what we need in this overheated debate. Some comments have been ill thought out and some commentators are using the opportunity given by events in Japan to polish their prejudices, rather than spread enlightenment.
    Five years ago, when I first started thinking seriously about alternative energy sources, I realised that I had so much information to grapple with, I was going to have to write a whole damn book, to get it straight in my head! It turned into a novel. I constructed a book that looks like crime fiction and reads like a detective thriller, in the hope that readers would get hooked on the car chases, and stay long enough to think about the issues. That’s what we all need – room to think. I’m sorry to see that so much huffing and puffing isn’t helping. It’s turned into the usual YES/NO debate, without either being grown-up or thoughtful.
    I’ve made my book available on Amazon, but I’ll give you a link below. All profits are being donated to the World Watch Foundation.
    http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/new-clear-vision/2374926

  • Sep 27th 201105:09
    by oliver

    First i d like to apologize for my English i’am Belgian. I live next to a nuclear site and I was always scared by that, but what scared me the most is the impossiblity to solve the toxic wasted accumulated for decades now, thinking that most of those are litteraly drops in the confin of the ocean , knowing the corrosion effect of salt on any material and nobody ever checking, eat fish , it s good for health they say…

  • Dec 5th 201112:12
    by Sherry Molina

    The hazards brought by nuclear power plants are just too high, instead of nuclear plants why don’t we turn to Alternative energy power resources,(e.g. Wind turbines, solar panels etc. ) which are cost-effective and environment-friendly.

  • Dec 19th 201122:12
    by sieve cleaner

    You do not have the right to declare that some arbitrary level of radioactive contamination is `acceptable’ for other millions of people who may rely on plant or animal foods from areas tainted by radiation releases.

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