In the aftermath of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck Japan March 11 and the consequent release of radioactive material from the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, many have raised concerns regarding the safety of nuclear energy. But when compared with feasible alternatives, it is clear that nuclear power is the safest form of electricity that is capable of filling America's growing demand.
A decisive transition to nuclear energy would save lives, reduce the overall impact of the energy sector on the environment and lessen American dependence on totalitarian dictatorships like Saudi Arabia's for our energy supply. Replacing our current fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure with a generation of nuclear power plants would provide the time necessary to develop better renewable energy technology for the longer term.
Many opponents of nuclear power argue that radiation releases from nuclear power plants constitute an unacceptable risk to human life and the environment. But they ignore the fact that fuels burned in conventional power plants frequently contain radioactive isotopes.
It follows that when fossil fuels are burned on an industrial scale, the chemical byproducts of combustion that are released into the atmosphere will contain radioactive particles. Sure enough, according to a report published by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the average public exposure to radiation caused by a coal-fired power plant is 100 times greater than that of a nuclear power plant of comparable power output under normal operating conditions.
Anti-nuclear activists also argue that nuclear energy is environmentally destructive because of the radioactive waste it generates. But when buried very deep underground in a stable and secure facility, nuclear waste poses little to no danger to the general public. It is also possible for breeder reactors to convert high-level radioactive waste into less hazardous, shorter-lived isotopes, generating energy in the process.
But what about the effect of nuclear accidents like the one in Japan? To examine this question, it is necessary to study the worst accidental radiation release ever to have occurred — Chernobyl. In 1986, grossly incompetent operators performed an experiment on a poorly designed test reactor at the Chernobyl facility in Soviet Ukraine, pushing the reactor far beyond its usual operational parameters in the process. This caused a steam explosion within the reactor that launched highly radioactive material from the reactor core directly into the atmosphere.
While the total number of casualties caused by Chernobyl is hard to pin down — it is difficult to say with certainty whether most individuals' health problems were caused by radiation or not — an official World Health Organization report estimates the overall death toll at 4,000 over the long run.
Although the tragedy of such a disaster should not be downplayed, it is important to note that this is the worst-case scenario involving nuclear power — one that is inconceivable in a technologically advanced country with stringent safety regulations. More importantly, the destruction resulting from the Chernobyl accident pales in comparison to that already resulting from our addiction to fossil fuels.
For instance, every year, roughly 10,000 Americans die prematurely as a result of pollution from coal-fired power plants. Between 1993 and 2006, 1,192 oil and gas workers died in the United States due to workplace accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Most saliently, as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, people along the Gulf Coast continue to experience health problems from contact with the oil slick and the chemical dispersants used in cleanup efforts.
In contrast, despite numerous government-sponsored studies, there is no credible evidence linking proximity to a nuclear power plant with an increased cancer risk. Indeed, aside from the Chernobyl incident, no member of the public has ever died anywhere as a result of radiation from a nuclear power plant. The safety record of nuclear power — at least in advanced economies — is therefore very difficult to dispute.
In light of this, we must reject sensationalist media reports on the supposed dangers of nuclear power and realize that while nuclear accidents seize our attention, fossil fuels are a constant threat and silent killer. We must not allow fears of a nuclear meltdown — fears that are highly unlikely ever to materialize — to prevent us from acting quickly to replace an energy infrastructure that kills civilians every day.
Hunter Fast '12 suggests that you visit xkcd.com/radiation for a helpful and informative chart on radiation's effects.