Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nuclear Energy and Earthquakes

As pretty much everyone knows, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan has created serious problems with several of their nuclear reactors. Naturally people are wondering if this means that nuclear energy is unsafe. Of course the situation remains fluid and the answers are not yet in. However we can say some things for certain.

First, of course neither nuclear energy nor anything else is 100% safe. You could die in your back yard from a lightening strike, a heart attack, or even a meteor strike. Asking for total safety is the wrong question. The right question is if nuclear safety is safe compared to other sources. So far the answer seems to be that it is. The number of people killed by electricity producing nuclear reactors is miniscule compared to those killed by other problems. In fact the number of Japanese killed by that quake and tsunami far exceeds what the reactor problems are likely to cause.

Second, 'nuclear' is a witch word, a word that tends to end rational discussion. (cf All too many people react emotionally rather than rationally to the term. If we are to decide wisely about the future of nuclear energy we will have to overcome that problem and think about not only the dangers and benefits of nuclear reactors but about the dangers and benefits of not using it. This is back to the question of alpha vs. beta risk that I've discussed previously. (

Third, if we continue to use nuclear reactors we must learn from the past. If news reports are correct, General Electric ignored some of the recommendations of its own engineers who thought that reactor model was unsafe. The dispute was so severe that the engineers resigned. Also, the Japanese put those reactors within reach of a tsunami knowing that they live on the Pacific Ring of Fire, and area of extreme earthquake danger. Clearly that is not the place for a nuclear reactor.

So what is the upshot of all this? My conclusions are:

1. We should re-examine the nuclear program to see where improvements can be made.

2. We probably should continue developing nuclear energy, using reactors improved by what we have learned. Not to do so would leave us a choice of more fossil fuel burning or going back to the pre-industrial age when people died from lack of food, clean water, or shelter. The dangers from that almost certainly exceed the danger from a well-run nuclear program.

3. We should continue looking at other energy sources. Wind, solar and similar new sources are not yet ready to displace fossil fuels but we should continue research.

4. If we continue a nuclear program (which I suspect we should), we must require that such facilities be located away from known faults and where tsunamis and other known hazards cannot reach them. We must also require use of the best safety measures reasonably available.

And of course we can all do our part to help the people in Japan. They will need help for a long time.

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