How I learned to stop worrying and love nuclear power

Nuclear plants become attractive sources of energy when compared with much worse alternatives.
By
  • Julian Switala
March 28, 2011

It’s not every day that the humanitarian aftermath of an earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale becomes overshadowed by other aspects of the tragedy. Yet, that is exactly what’s happening.


In fact, one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent history has become unjustifiably politicized by pundits and anti-nuclear activists. The situation in Japan isn’t a reason to shut down all nuclear power plants. Media attention is being placed on problems facing the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Complex.


Granted that these problems — explosions, overheating, and cooling troubles at several reactor sites — are significant, death toll estimates from the Sendai earthquake and resulting tsunami have soared well above 15,000.


Not a single one of these deaths happened as a result of the issues plaguing the Fukushima power plant, but it sure seems that way as journalists and impassioned citizens paint nuclear energy as a horseman of the apocalypse.


There are currently 442 nuclear power plants globally, and the vast majority of these plants have operated for more than 20 years. More than 100 nuclear power plants have been running smoothly for more than 30 years.


This is quite the track record. To date there have only been two other notable nuclear disasters: Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. At Three Mile Island, a failure involving the water pumps allowed cooling water to escape, resulting in a partial meltdown. Even then the radioactive material never escaped its container, and there wasn’t a detectable health effect in the surrounding population.


Chernobyl, on the other hand, occurred as a result of testing the capabilities of the reactor during an electrical failure. The core wasn’t shut down and the reactor had no containment structure. Today, no reactor in the world is this poorly constructed. Nearly all are magnitudes ahead in terms of security and safety. Unfortunately, as a result of the faulty design, 28 people died in several weeks from radiation and a few thousand were put at risk for cancer.


These numbers pale in comparison to the total number of deaths each day — more than 150,000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


Each day in the U.S. alone there are more than 120 motor vehicle mortalities, more than 100 drug and alcohol deaths, more than 50 homicides, more than 180 accidental deaths, and — of course — thousands of deaths from diseases and sicknesses.


In China 1.2 million people die each year as a result of smoking cigarettes. Do the math: That’s 2,000 people a day. How many people have died from nuclear power plants over the last 50 years? It’s not even close.


Comparing the relative destruction of disasters and death rates probably isn’t the most fashionable argument, but the truth is that every action we take has risk associated with it.


As I get out of bed in the morning to make a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, I may trip on a power cord and become paralyzed or have a meltdown after realizing I ate all my cereal last night. That’s a risk I’m willing to take.


Every time I drive a car faster than 60 miles per hour merely a few feet away from other horrible drivers, that’s a risk with my life I’m willing to take. Perhaps you’ve taken such a risk too.


The disaster in Japan and the ensuing coverage is an excellent example of individuals’ psychological tendencies to overexaggerate catastrophes.


According to professor Nicholas Rescher at the University of Pittsburgh, "Our perception of the magnitude of risks tends to be distorted by the structure of our anxieties. Hazards involving threats that are particularly striking or dramatic … tend to be overestimated, while risks of a commonplace, undramatic nature whose eventuations are no less serious tend to be underestimated."


Despite the fact that problems with nuclear plants are extremely rare, they are acutely feared precisely because they are rare; when a meltdown occurs, it’s a memorable event.


This freak occurrence in Japan — the result of a natural disaster, not human error — makes me feel more confident about nuclear power. Now countries around the world are slowing down construction of new power plans. In Minnesota, safety officials will inspect and upgrade our two plants.


Both the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant and Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant continue to operate safely without any problem.


You may argue that there are other energy sources that are more efficient, safer and cleaner. Which ones are these?


Natural gas, refineries and mines? In 2010, 54 people died in the U.S. as a result of eight accidents in these facilities. Not to mention the millions of dollars in damages and hundreds of homes destroyed. More than 2,400 coal miners died in China in 2010, plus there were disasters in New Zealand, Russia, Columbia and Mexico. I almost forgot to mention: A properly functioning nuclear power plant releases 100 times less radioactivity than a coal-fired power plant for the same amount of energy.


Currently, renewable energy sources such as hydro, wind and solar are unable to supply the energy the world demands at a reasonable cost. Plus it kills wildlife and destroys habitats. That’s probably bad for the environment.


Six billion people can live on Earth partially as a result of nuclear energy. Shutting down all nuclear plants would cripple the economy and result in pre-industrial living conditions.


 


Julian Switala welcomes comments at jswitala@mndaily.com.

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