Over the past few weeks, the news has been rife with headlines following the triple calamity in Japan: the earthquake, tsunami, and ensuing nuclear fallout of several power plants in the area. On March 15, it was announced that radiation from at least one of the reactors had leaked to “levels that can impact human health” and people within 20 miles were cautioned to stay indoors. Accuweather predicted radiation, in case of a widespread leak or meltdown, could reach the West Coast of the United States within 11 days. With the impending threat of nuclear disaster, there has predictably been much cacophony over the state of nuclear power use. Looking empirically at the costs and benefits of nuclear power in today’s technology-driven, energy-consuming society, however we must continue ahead with exploration and implementation of nuclear power sources.
Would a country—especially one like Japan already once devastated by and now well-acquainted with the brute force and lasting impact of nuclear radiation—readily adopt nuclear power without first weighing the costs and benefits? Clearly not; Japan, a country with rocky topography and limited natural resources originally resorted to using nuclear power because of its inability to financially support the sole use of carbon-based fuels.
Safety concerns have sprung anew in light of the recent nuclear scares in Japan, but officials are standing by their word that these plants do not pose undue threats. Compared to the alternative—more fossil fuel consumption—nuclear power seems reasonable. For major cities in the U.S. such as New York City to revert back to reliance on such dirty fuels would result not only in millions of dollars spent on obtaining the facilities, permits, and technology for such a conversion, but also millions spent on cleaning the environment, providing health care to smog-ridden communities, and reckoning with increased energy costs.
Furthermore, various other countries have been using nuclear power with no repercussions. Most notably, France uses nuclear power as its primary source of electric power, with 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, and is the world’s largest net energy exporter. Its resounding success with nuclear power should be used as an example to the world of how to safely and successfully implement this alternative energy source. There have, of course, been minor incidents of leaks, but these have all been dealt with swiftly and efficiently, seldom even making world headlines because of their relatively small impact.
The most notable nuclear plant disasters are relics from the past: Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island. Admittedly, the Three-Mile Island accident was not in the not-so-distant past, but the event was a result of human error, as was the Chernobyl disaster. In the case of the Chernobyl meltdown, though, nuclear power plants were a relatively new and exploratory source of energy, so the human error and ensuing fallout could be used as unfortunate examples to learn from. Now, there are a variety of safety measures, such as the containment shells present in every nuclear reactor and the exclusion of graphite moderators, that can protect against widespread radiation leakage. With a careful review of precautions, nuclear power can be considered virtually safe.
As long as proactive steps and updated safety measures are taken, there is no reason as to why nuclear power plants should not continue to be built or used. In the midst of Japan’s nuclear crisis, there are lessons to be learned about the ability of nature to bring about severe calamity. The probability of such events occurring is so small. We cannot live in fear of such infinitesimal what-ifs, but instead need to look ahead to how we can learn and improve. As Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan commented, “In that case, let’s not bring gas canisters to our homes, let’s not install natural gas, let’s not stream crude oil through our country.”
Already, the European Union has struck a general agreement to apply rigorous stress tests to member countries’ nuclear facilities to ensure the stability of their power sources and the safety of their peoples.
The U.S. itself relies on its 104 operating reactors to generate 20.2 percent of our nation’s electricity needs. Without these reactors and the 20 more being proposed, the U.S. will see itself with the same reliance on foreign oil and dirty energy.
The tragedies of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Japan should be taken as a cautionary tale, of what the global community can improve upon, but not as a foreboding of the evils of nuclear power. We have come too far in our appetite and reliance on energy to do without.
Kathy Wang ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Thayer Hall.