Twilight of the Nuclear Age


There has rarely been a news story as difficult to follow as the Fukushima nuclear reactor crisis in Japan.  From the moment an earthquake and tsunami struck the area, news reports have alternated between cautious optimism and warnings of atomic apocalypse.  Sometimes the outlook changes several times in a single hour.

The confusion surrounding this story is no great surprise.  Events are developing rapidly against a background of human tragedy and incredibly complex science.  The media knows the public is hungry for details, but it’s reporting on a subject it barely understands, using information carefully dribbled out by a Japanese government that is simultaneously confused, worried about political damage, and trying to avoid causing massive panic.

As of this morning, the government has ordered 140,000 people, living within about 20 miles of the nuclear power plant, to seal themselves indoors.  Even the most dedicated rescue workers, including the Japanese Red Cross and the U.S. military, are maneuvering to avoid areas of elevated radiation around the plant.  The U.S. Navy has detected low levels of radiation over 200 miles away from Fukushima.  The area around the reactors has become so dangerous that one of the plans under consideration for cooling dangerously hot spent reactor fuel involves spraying water from helicopters. 

Unsurprisingly, this crisis has been used aggressively by the opponents of nuclear power in the United States.  The L.A. Times, for example, ran an editorial called “Nuclear Power Fails The Test,” in which it declares the risks of nuclear plants too “extreme” to make them a “safe, cost-effective way of producing carbon-emissions-free” power that would satisfy their primitive climate-change superstitions. 

Nuclear power is, of course, the least dangerous form of energy generation available in the United States, since it has never killed or injured anyone.  No other form of energy production, including wind turbines, can claim such a spotless record.

The risks of nuclear energy are always computed by assuming the worst-case scenario is inevitable.  Rational calculations of risk and precaution are angrily dismissed.  For example, the L.A. Times editors complain that California’s nuclear plants are “built to withstand the largest earthquake considered likely in their regions, based on fault analyses,” implying that only penny-pinching madness prevented them from being constructed to withstand unimaginably powerful quakes.  If the thoughtful assessment of risk is universally dismissed in favor of wild-eyed, righteous panic, technological civilization will become impossible.

The Left is awfully selective about which situations require us to eliminate risk entirely.  They don’t seem to mind that high fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles have increased the fatality rate from traffic accidents, for example.  It’s not very difficult to imagine a worst-case scenario of motorists freezing to death inside electric cars trapped in a blizzard… but that doesn’t stop the Left from insisting that vast amounts of taxpayer money be used to subsidize electric cars, or that government policy be written to push Americans into driving them.  Bringing up the health risks of any politically correct activity is considered extremely bad form.

The United States obtains roughly 20% of its electricity from nuclear plants, so shutting them all down is not an option.  We haven’t built any new plants in 30 years.  How are the designs of these plants supposed to improve if we never build any more of them?  What expectations of reliability would you have from the computer you are using right now, if no new computers had been constructed since 1981? 

How many American reactors are situated in locations where they could be hit by a combination of massive earthquakes and tsunamis?  Do we have a shortage of prospective locations that would be reasonably safe from such catastrophes?

We should think rationally about these questions, not flee in blind panic from the very technology that improves the quality of our lives.  There is no way to eliminate risk in any area of human activity.  A foolish quest to do so leads only to a short and unhappy life beneath a blanket of darkness.  The simple, “sustainable” life that environmental hysterics want to impose on the little people of the United States, in an effort to make them easier to control, would be far more dangerous than the technological terrors that haunt their imaginations.