Thursday, March 17, 2011

Getting a Grip

Reactions to the Japanese nuclear reactor breakdowns are out of proportion and, in some cases, irrational. Just as the nuclear industry was getting organized again, this threatens to stop it. Eugene Robinson calls it a bargain with the devil. Anne Applebaum asks If the Japanese can't build a safe reactor, who can?

My answer to Robinson is that all of civilization is a bargain with the devil. The EPA just released a report claiming that emissions from coal-fired power plants cause 17,000 premature deaths a year and 11,000 heart attacks. Natural gas burns clean but there are allegations that fracking to release more gas causes earthquakes and contaminates drinking water. Ecologists want an end to undersea drilling after the Gulf Oil spill. Solar and wind generation required huge quantities of toxic rare earth metals. In countries without reliable electricity, wood-burning cook fires are a leading cause of death among women. We have to weigh our alternatives instead of rejecting one because of a well-publicized disaster.

Applebaum gives the Japanese more credit than they deserve. Yes, they have a long history of building earthquake-resistant buildings but these power plants were not designed for a 9.0 quake followed by a tsunami. They were designed 30 years ago to resist a much less powerful quake. This is a failure of imagination. Also, the Japanese are not infallible. The company operating these plants has a poor safety record.

So far, the nuclear disaster is serious but no one has been killed (except a worked who fell from a crane) and only a few injured. This is only a small part of a much larger disaster that killed tens of thousands, left tens of thousands more homeless, and interrupted services to Japan's most populous island. By the standards being applied to nuclear power, nothing should be rebuilt within miles of the coast.

In fact, after all of the attention lavished on New Orleans after Katrina and Haiti after its own earthquake, the news media is showing a surprising lack of compassion for the suffering of the Japanese. This has become a sidebar to the story about the reactors when the two should be reversed.

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