There is no such thing as totally safe energy conversion on a large scale. Energy is the capacity for doing work, and as long as people are fallible, there is always the possibility that the energy we use will do some of the wrong kind of work. To ask for absolutely safe energy, therefore, is much the same thing as asking for incombustible fuel.
Lessons from Fukushima
I never try to argue that nuclear power is completely safe, only that it is far safer than any other form of large-scale energy conversion yet invented. The media slanders nuclear power at every turn, as witnessed by the coverage across the board following the Fukushima problems. On the other hand, the nuclear science community, the nuclear industry, and the utilities should have spoken out with accurate information, but they have essentially been silent.
I was nearly a lone voice in the radio and television coverage for weeks after the earthquake, attempting to explain what a nuclear plant is and why no worst-case scenario would occur in Japan other than a loss of power. The media kept stoking fears of a nuclear disaster that was never feasible, while the tens of thousands of people that lost their lives in the earthquake and tsunami were essentially ignored.
No one else pointed out that fossil fuels are more dangerous than nuclear power. But there is no need to knock coal, either. Although fossil fuels are more dangerous than nuclear power, they save many more lives than they take, as does any form of large-scale energy conversion. One need merely compare the public health statistics of an advanced, energy-intensive economy with those of backward economies to see this. Abundant, inexpensive energy benefits the health of all societies, regardless of the source of that energy. Yet our federal government is presently doing everything possible to make all forms of energy less available and more expensive.
For decades prior to Fukushima, some activists have stymied the building of nuclear power plants in the United States by linking them to fears of nuclear bombs. As a result, we have not built a single plant since 1978. Fear is a powerful weapon.
Nevertheless, the powerful earthquake and devastating tsunami resulted in no loss of life or serious radiation illness at or near the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The real lesson of the earthquake and tsunami disaster regarding nuclear power is the real-world evidence of the ability of nuclear power to withstand even worst-case catastrophes.
Irrational Nuclear Fears
Germany’s Prime Minister, Angela Merkel, called Fukushima the worst imaginable disaster in her lifetime and promptly ordered the eventual shutdown of all 17 of Germany’s nuclear power plants. Very few analysts came forward to explain the insanity of these comments and actions. Instead the television networks aired primarily anti-nuclear radicals spreading ridiculous misinformation regarding nuclear power.
The anti-nuclear bias is not limited to television networks and the liberal press. Every single issue of the Wall Street Journal for more than a month after Fukushima printed nearly a full page of nuclear fear-mongering. The Journal has a reputation for being accurate and publishing corrections when it does err, but in the case of nuclear power it printed a variety of false information leading readers to believe the plants were all potential nuclear bombs.
Let me state it again: nuclear explosions in nuclear power plants are physically impossible.
Impressive Nuclear Safety Record
The basic hazard of nuclear power is the release of radioactivity. The effects of radiation on the human body are very well understood. Unlike chemical pollutants, which can cause cancer and a multitude of other diseases, radioactivity by accidental release from a nuclear power plant can cause only two diseases, cancer and radiation sickness. The occurrence of these diseases from nuclear power is very rare.
Dr. Jane Orient provides an informative explanation of how minor is the threat from nuclear power, in the March 2011 Civil Defense Perspectives Newsletter. Orient compares the human death tolls of some famous disasters:
- 1907 Mongongah coal mine explosion—362 deaths
- 1944 East Ohio Gas Company liquified natural gas explosion—130 deaths
- 1975 Shimatan/Banquo Dam failure—171,000 deaths
- 1998 Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Jess Oil pipe line explosion—1,078 deaths
- 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Power station—50 direct deaths among workers and firefighters, offset by a 15 percent to 30 percent decline in cancer mortality in emergency workers, a 5 percent decline in cancer incidence in the most heavily contaminated area, and a 38 percent decline in thyroid cancer in 34,000 Swedes downwind.
Nuclear power is also emissions-free. Strange as it may seem, far more is known about the health hazards of nuclear power—limited as they are—than about those associated with other forms of electricity production. Air quality rules imposed on fossil fuel power plants are certainly too stringent, but merchants of doubt are continuously overselling the potential health threat from modest power plant emissions. Any health impacts alleged from fossil fuel power plants are absent from nuclear power production. Also, people living in the vicinity of wind turbines report a wide variety of negative health impacts, including headaches, nausea, and hearing damage.
Jay Lehr, PhD. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.