Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nuclear power: why is it so terrifying?

The earthquake triggers a massive
gas explosion.
Credit: Reuters
I'm reading accounts of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and its ongoing woes after Japan's 8.9 (now the USGS is saying 9.0) earthquake on the 11th. Now, this is a tragic event, to be sure, but I'm baffled by the laser-focus that this one event is getting. Power-generation of many sorts suffer catastrophic failure under these circumstances. Gas mains ignite, fuel tankers spill, oil is dumped into oceans and rivers. And yet, for some reason we're focusing on the one event that has yet to injure anyone. Sure, it might result in a deadly release of radiation that prevents a wide area from being re-built for the foreseeable future, but I get the impression that people are somehow equating this to some fundamental instability in nuclear power.

Keep in mind that this earthquake has literally removed entire towns. They'r gone. The buildings don't exist anymore, except as rubble, swept miles away. Under these circumstances, the low death toll (5000-10000, estimated) is a tribute to Japan's excellent preparedness. There's no one sitting a block away from the power plant wondering, "oh dear, is it going to affect me?" No, everyone is either dead or evacuated. Thousands are dead. Thousands more are missing. The fact that a nuclear power plant is suffering a failure is quite simply not changing the scope of this disaster.

But still, we continue to raise alarms and demand stricter regulations as a result of our irrational fear of what is clearly our safest form of power generation. We continue to put out gas fires and clean up oil spills at an ever-increasing rate, but after a 9.0 earthquake a nuclear plant is damaged? It must be time for stricter regulation!

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for strong safety surrounding nuclear power. I think Chernobyl teaches us what happens when basic safety technology is ignored. However, you don't then ratchet up the level of regulation every time a new worst-case scenario occurs. You perform reasonable risk assessments and regulate as a result of their findings when necessary. It's actually not very hard.