The Nuclear Panic Button!

The recent nuclear catastrophe in Japan captured my attention for most of the past week since the March 11 earthquake. Based on the headlines over the last few days it appears that the focus of media attention has shifted to war in Libya. Neither event leads to optimism.

The frustrating thing about the nuclear disaster in Japan has been the not unexpected backlash against nuclear power. Having grown up in the 1980s I remember the many nightmares about nuclear war that seemed to plague that decade. We somehow lucked out and didn’t destroy ourselves in a single apotheosis of button pushing, but the risks of nuclear weapons still remain and receive a lot less attention than a single industrial catastrophe in Japan does. The problem is that one high-profile media disaster seems to shape the political and social discourse out of all proportion to its real effects.

Over the past week I’ve collected some interesting links to other people saying the same thing about the relative risks of nuclear power compared to the risks of global warming or other disasters. So far no one that we know of has been killed directly by radiation. But we do know that many thousands have died because of the tsunami. I don’t think it makes sense to spend so much time wringing our hands about nuclear power when so many have died because of the earthquake.

William Saletan started to respond to the nuclear nay-sayers on Monday, March 14.

Less than a year ago, a drilling rig exploded off the coast of the United States, killing 11 workers and pouring 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. No natural disaster caused this tragedy. It was entirely man-made. President Obama halted deep-water drilling but lifted the moratorium less than six months later. On Friday, while fielding questions about Japan’s nuclear reactors, he proudly noted that his administration, under new, stricter rules, had “approved more than 35 new offshore drilling permits.”

That’s how we deal with tragedies in the oil business. Accidents happen. People die. Pollution spreads. We don’t abandon oil. We study what went wrong, try to fix it, and move on.

Contrast this with the panic over Japan’s reactors. For 40 years, they’ve quietly done their work. Three days ago, they were hit almost simultaneously by Japan’s worst earthquake and one of its worst tsunamis. Not one reactor container has failed.

George Monbiot added a green perspective on Wednesday, March 16.

I despise and fear the nuclear industry as much as any other green: all experience hath shown that, in most countries, the companies running it are a corner-cutting bunch of scumbags, whose business originated as a by-product of nuclear weapons manufacture. But, sound as the roots of the anti-nuclear movement are, we cannot allow historical sentiment to shield us from the bigger picture. Even when nuclear power plants go horribly wrong, they do less damage to the planet and its people than coal-burning stations operating normally.

Coal, the most carbon-dense of fossil fuels, is the primary driver of human-caused climate change. If its combustion is not curtailed, it could kill millions of times more people than nuclear power plants have done so far. Yes, I really do mean millions. The Chernobyl meltdown was hideous and traumatic. The official death toll so far appears to be 43 – 28 workers in the initial few months then a further 15 civilians by 2005. Totally unacceptable, of course; but a tiny fraction of the deaths for which climate change is likely to be responsible, through its damage to the food supply, its contribution to the spread of infectious diseases and its degradation of the quality of life for many of the world’s poorest people.

Another list of power plant disasters shows that nuclear plants are really not that dangerous in the aggregate. And a data visualization of deaths by terawatt hours shows that nuclear is tiny compared to coal and oil. An article in the Washington Post reports that the largest health risks from nuclear accidents are psychological. Anxiety, depression, and stigmatization do greater damage to health than the actual radiological effects of an accident.