Nuclear future Rethinking the risks in the wake of disaster

Monday, March 14, 2011 9:22 PM

Out of Japan’s rubble, two irrefutable truths have emerged: Natural forces can overcome human-devised defenses, and nuclear power isn’t as safe as Japanese leaders believed.

The first is not news, but it’s worth remembering that Japan, which had suffered a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 1923, had some of the best damage-prevention and disaster response plans in the world. Yet the damage is almost incomprehensible, supplies are running low, and half a million people are displaced, many of them permanently.

Many more will become long-term refugees if the crisis at the stricken nuclear plants is not brought under control. At the same time, the loss of electrical generation capacity is hindering Japan’s ability to recover from the disaster and, ironically, also its ability to pump water to the endangered reactors.

As the reactor problems grow more severe, almost by the hour, the rest of the world is watching and wondering whether nuclear power is worth the risks.

Since the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, the U.S. nuclear power industry has been largely on hold, and the far worse Chernobyl accident in 1986 reinforced fears about the safety of nuclear plants. Supporters point to serious accidents related to other energy sources — the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and subsequent release of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and coal-mining disasters — and the long-term consequences of burning carbon fuelds. They say that nuclear power is cleaner than those options.

And it is, except when something goes wrong. The problem is the number of things that can go terribly wrong, and the broad and lasting damage that can result.

It’s fair to say that the problem in Japan was not with the power plants themselves; building anything that can withstand such a severe quake may be impossible. A strong argument can be made that the plants should not have been built where they were, although, if they had not, seawater would not have been available to cool the reactors during this emergency.

But avoiding fault lines is not a complete safeguard. While Japan’s particular disaster couldn’t happen in the American heartland, others certainly could. The problem at Chernobyl was a design flaw, not a natural disaster. At Three Mile Island, the disaster was caused by a mechanical failure compounded by operator error. Terrorism and sabotage also are possibilities.

Recently, the United States has been warming toward nuclear power. It’s dependable, affordable and generally clean and safe — except when it’s not. It doesn’t take many photos of Japanese parents holding their infants up for radiation checks to strike serious doubt in the hearts of their American counterparts.

Fear is not a basis for good decisions, however. They have to be driven by data. The nuclear power industry has learned from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and from all the near-disasters and smaller problems that have occurred out of the public eye. It has gathered information on what can go wrong and how to both prevent and correct it. It has refined designs and recalculated risks.

Japan’s nuclear crisis is a clear warning for the rest of the world, and it may yet become a global catastrophe, but it is not the last word, or the only word, on the nuclear power industry. Having seen another demonstration of the risk of nuclear power plants, Americans must decide for themselves whether that risk can be reduced here to a tolerable level, and they should decide logically, not emotionally.