Fukushima Proves Nuclear Power Awesome

Nuclear power remains far safer than coal. The awful events in Fukushima must not spook governments outlawing atomic energy.

George Monbiot takes to the Guardian for a turn-the-conventional-wisdom-on-its-head piece worthy of Slate:  “Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power.”

You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.

Some greens have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution. For a clearer view, look at the graphic published by xkcd.com. It shows that the average total dose from the Three Mile Island disaster for someone living within 10 miles of the plant was one 625th of the maximum yearly amount permitted for US radiation workers. This, in turn, is half of the lowest one-year dose clearly linked to an increased cancer risk, which, in its turn, is one 80th of an invariably fatal exposure. I’m not proposing complacency here. I am proposing perspective.

If other forms of energy production caused no damage, these impacts would weigh more heavily. But energy is like medicine: if there are no side-effects, the chances are that it doesn’t work.

He goes on to lay out that case in some detail. This is, I think, right. We simply must have energy and have yet to find a source that’s without substantial downsides. Nuclear is safer than most and can be made much safer through better engineering and, oh, not building plants on major fault lines. But there will be spills.

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, Science & Technology
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    I agree.

    We did everything short of bombing the damned place and yes, there have been some issues of trust and honesty, and the release of small amounts of radiation is a serious thing, but on balance would it be better if it had been an oil refinery?

    Also, someone should do the story of the 50 workers who stayed behind. I don’t know what those guys are getting paid, but I’m pretty sure they put in a harder couple of weeks than you or I.

  2. Jack says:

    A few other things to note:

    Conventional coal-burning power plants also result in radiation, a lot given how many there are

    Conventional coal-burning power plants release mercury into the atmosphere

    You increase your radiation exposure by living in a brick building

    You increase your radiation exposure by eating a banana

    You increase your radiation exposure by flying in a plane (not counting the exposure from the security screening)

    You increase your radiation exposure by being full-body scanned at airport security, more than you realize, and if that cost is worth the “extra safety” as I am repeatedly told, then why is nuclear power not worth a smaller risk in terms of number of people exposed?

  3. jwest says:

    Michael,

    That was a breathtakingly reasoned response. I would have thought, based on some of your other views, that you would be dancing naked around a symbol of Gaia, beating a tom-tom and chanting anti-nuclear slogans.

    There is hope for the world.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    jwest:

    I’m always rational, as wise observers admit.

  5. Axel Edgren says:

    Devil’s prosecutor: How the [flarn!] do we keep the depleted fuel safe for 100,000 years?

  6. Jay Tea says:

    Well, there’s Yucca Mountain, Axel. And it’s hardly unique in this world — just find a big mountain or a very vacant desert in a geologically stable area and dig a great big deep hole. Then take the waste, mix it up into bricks, and stack ’em down at the bottom of the hole.

    That’s not that removed from Robert Heinlein’s suggestion from “Expanded Universe,” his essay collection. He also noted that the Romans had almost no use for petroleum except as a very ineffective medicine. On the other hand, we have found a zillion great uses for it — and most of it, we burn!

    He thought that future generations might find a use for nuclear waste, and if we get rid of it utterly, they will curse us. So just put it somewhere where it will be safe and out of the way for a few thousand years or so.

    Let’s toss in one more fact: According to one of Glenn Reynolds:Reader Andrew Medina says we’re lucky to face nuclear-plant problems, because if the tsunami had hit a solar farm instead, “10,000’s of Lbs of lead and cadmium telluride would have been swept into the Sea of Japan poisoning just about everything.

    J.

  7. Ben Wolf says:

    Nculear is dead because the public hates it. End of story.

  8. john personna says:

    Jay Tea, I don’t have a problem with more temporary storage than Yucca Mountain, but storage over even shorter periods has a “net present value” problem.

    If I were to hire you (and your children, and their children) to watch 100,000 bricks for the next … even just 500 years, now much would you charge me?

    Or would you assume that someone else would come along to pay you in 100 or 200 years?

    This is, sadly, another “stick the grandchildren” thing. Waste as permanent costs, judged with standard “net present value” calculations, those costs are actually infinite (the cost of “effectively forever”).

  9. john personna says:

    BTW, on the dangers of “radiation” itself, this event and the xkcd chart are providing a good teaching moment:

    http://xkcd.com/radiation/

    (I’m sure it’s been linked before.)

  10. Robert Bell says:

    James: “Nuclear is safer than most and can be made much safer through better engineering and, oh, not building plants on major fault lines.”

    I would say that thinking about corporate governance and public governance would also improve safety.

  11. Trumwill says:

    Nculear is dead because the public hates it. End of story.

    Drill, baby, drill.

  12. MarkedMan says:

    Can we at least agree that no nuclear plant should be built wherein if the power goes out, we have a catastrophe?

  13. Trumwill says:

    MM, that should be the lesson in all of this. As a cautionary tale against building reactors on fault lines or on the coast of hurricane alley, it’s all good. Instead, I am seeing it used as an argument against all nuclear power and (most oddly) an argument in favor of maybe using what we’ve built (older, less safe, less efficient) and not building new plants (which would be safer and more efficient).

  14. john personna says:

    Related: Oil Will Be Gone in 50 Years: HSBC

    (You OTB guys could bump that story, for the “drill baby, drill” crowd.)

  15. Mr. Joyner,

    With all respect, would you advocate your thoughts of last week as of today given the Japanese have now stated there is a breach in the nuclear core containment vessel?

    I suggest you gain a sense of humility and compassion both as human being and as a father of young child out of respect to all those in immense pain and suffering in Japan.

    Either that or pick up your check the Heritage Foundation for such excellent nuclear industry PR work.

    Best regards, Bob in Philly

  16. paul randall says:

    Saying that you are for nuclear power is like saying you are for fossil fuel. Coal fired plants are very different from natural gas. Depends on which nuclear power technology you are talking about because solid fuel multi fuel cycle designs are very different from liquid fuel single cycle designs. Which are you talking about?