Too soon to write off nuclear power

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 8:42 PM

FIRST CAME an earthquake so powerful that it shifted Japan's largest island, Honshu, eight feet eastward. Thirty minutes later a tsunami washed away thousands of lives. Now, a third disaster threatens as technicians desperately try to keep the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station from releasing radioactive material.

During all of this, the Japanese people have reacted with fortitude. In a rare television appearance, the emperor asked Japanese to "hand in hand, treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times." That seems to be exactly what they are attempting; and the skeleton staff at Fukushima Daiichi is taking on more than its share, only briefly evacuating the site after detecting a radiation spike on Tuesday, then returning to continue cooling the reactors.

Though the reactors are shut down, they are still producing immense quantities of heat. It doesn't appear that catastrophic levels of radiation have leaked from the plant's thick containment barriers, but U.S. officials still have few details. The next few days will be critical.

On this side of the Pacific, the crisis has reinvigorated a debate on nuclear safety. Opponents of atomic power say this crisis proves that the risks can never be eliminated. That's true. There will always be challenges that designers don't fully anticipate.

Yet Energy Secretary Steven Chu insisted Wednesday that he and President Obama want to retain nuclear energy as an option, and they have good reason to do so. Generating electricity carries risks, no matter how you do it. Burning fossil fuels pumps harmful gases and particulates into the air every day, causing respiratory illness and cancer in thousands. People die in explosions of coal mines, oil drilling rigs and natural gas pipelines. Unlike nuclear energy, burning fossil fuels contributes to the gravest environmental threat of our time - climate change, which is likely to affect not thousands or millions of people, but billions.

Nuclear accidents pose a uniquely frightening danger: the prospect, in a worst case, of large swaths of territory being poisoned and uninhabitable for decades or longer. Mr. Chu and Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko are right to have the government closely examine what happens in Japan and adjust U.S. policy as necessary. But the Fukushima plant is old. New plants would use more sophisticated technology, such as small-scale high-temperature gas reactors that use fuel in forms that shrink the risk of meltdown further still. A proposed nuclear plant in Georgia would not require backup power in order to activate emergency cooling systems.

Events in Japan will affect the "nuclear renaissance" to some extent, no matter what Mr. Chu or anyone else says, and all the more if the damage is not contained. Our thoughts, as ever, are with the Japanese people struggling to cope; beyond that, it is too soon to form broad and absolute judgments on relative risks.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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