Commentary Forum: 3/22/11

A difficult, but nuclear reality

By Benjamin Tomkins

Benjamin Tomkins

The hardest part of writing about human tragedies is figuring out how to start talking. Preliminary estimates of the death toll in Japan are somewhere in the 10,000s. That number is a little large for my limited, hyper-simian brain to deal with when it comes to suffering and loss. About the best I’ve been able to do is imagine what it would be like for half of my hometown, Troy, to be completely obliterated by an earthquake so large I’d be functionally turning down a different street to get to my parent’s house, followed by a tsunami which sucks every building and most of my friends into the Miami river. Then for good measure, the prototype nuclear power plant in Piqua that hasn’t been functional since the 1960s melting down and irradiating everyone who’s left, making it impossible for me to find out what happened to my family for the next 20,000 years. That’s really, really horrible.
Now I have to write an article explaining how the U.S. should continue pursuing nuclear power because, in the course of human history and development, accidents of this nature are a foregone conclusion of progress and we shouldn’t let one massive catastrophe dissuade us from pursuing clean energy.

Well…
I suppose we have these psychological limitations for a reason.
So I don’t know if having the experience the people of Japan are having would change my attitude on continued nuclear development in my own country, and I think it would be well worth the efforts of the rest of the world to spend a long time talking to them. What I do know is that nuclear power has historically been one of the very safest forms of energy. An analytical compilation from the University of Pittsburgh places the average risk of a meltdown from any given nuclear reactor at about once every 20,000 years of operation. Every disaster becomes reality on a long-enough timeline. However, the average number of deaths from a meltdown would be something like 400, and even that’s skewed by the inclusion of a worst-case scenario in which 50,000 people die. Coal pollution is responsible for the same 10,000 person death toll as the disaster in Japan every single year. It just doesn’t make the news because pollution is something we live with every single day and it doesn’t happen in quite as dramatic a fashion. It’s also why we developed nuclear power in the first place. It reduces the risk of something that’s going to happen anyway.
Now obviously accidents happen, but rare numbers don’t help you much if you live in Japan, Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. However, the fact that they happened doesn’t tell the whole story about nuclear safety. For instance, Chernobyl was, in retrospect, the responsibility of a plant with serious design flaws and out-and-out safety omissions. These have been corrected. Three Mile Island was the product of the wine of unbelievable human ignorance and incompetence deliciously paired with a meal of unfortunate circumstances. Three Mile Island was essentially the result of Homer Simpson hitting the wrong button, and then standing around staring at the dials like dog that’s been shown a card trick rather than trying to fix it. Fair enough, you can’t correct stupidity, but you sure as hell can improve training and hiring practices.
And Japan? Well, it took the fourth-largest earthquake in recorded history and a tsunami that wiped out a large portion of their coastline. Do me a favor and read that sentence again to make sure it soaks in. That would have destroyed ANYTHING. No amount of design is going to accommodate that, and at that point you are pretty much arguing that living on the coast is dangerous. A comparable example of that level of destruction from sudden inundation came in the form of the Banqiao Dam failure of 1975 in China. The disaster happened because the Banqiao hydroelectric dam was only designed to hold back a once-in-1,000-year rainfall. Typhoon Nina brought a once-in-2,000-year rainfall, and when the dam broke, the subsequent wall of water killed 90,000-230,000 people. If you compare to the numbers above, that dam would fail 10 times more frequently than the average nuclear power plant, and when it does, it will kill more people than all the nuclear reactor deaths combined. By a lot. You are literally more likely to die working on a wind turbine than working in a nuclear power plant.
Look, I understand that all of this isn’t going to fix things in Japan, but the number of deaths attributable to the nuclear reactor itself is miniscule. Nuclear power is comparably safe, clean, and improving every second of every day. Horrible as a failure is, it’s still one of the best power sources we have short of the sun.

Benjamin Tompkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, CO. He hates stupidity, and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue.

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