If you’ve ever seen “sunburns” on the skin of a cancer patient after radiation therapy, you’ve seen the hazards of radioactivity. If you’ve seen a picture of a mushroom cloud, you’ve seen the dangers of nuclear weapons. And if you’ve watched the news from Japan over the last few weeks, you know how fragile human control of nuclear power can be.
For those of you who haven’t, I offer this ripped-from-the-headlines summary: Earthquake. Tsunami. Failed cooling systems at a coastal nuclear power plant. (Here, reports diverge. On the one hand, Japanese news outlets and the plant’s operators may be downplaying the situation — whether to maintain calm or for self-preservation. Meanwhile, Western accounts — at some points suggesting imminent catastrophe — may be catering to the opposite extreme. The true story, when it emerges through the plumes of steam, will have its heroes and its failures, likely including some loss of life — though paling in comparison to the thousands killed outright by the tsunami.)
But for those of us who have also seen — and believed — the evidence of the impact of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (climate change and ocean acidification) on our planet, there are some things more terrifying than a reactor on the loose. How many homes will be lost to sea level rise? How many livelihoods will be devastated by shifting patterns of rain and drought? How tenuous will humanity’s existence become, not just in zones of radioactive fallout, but on the entire planet?
Nuclear power’s promise is its generation of electricity without the emission of a steady stream of greenhouse gases (and other, acutely toxic pollutants), thus slowing the increase of atmospheric CO2. Today, some thirteen percent of global electricity comes from nuclear power, to the carbon-savings tune of 2.5 billion tons of CO2 emissions each year. Still, nuclear power is nonrenewable. It relies upon the extraction and refinement of radioactive heavy metals, temporary use of these materials in reactors and, ultimately, interminably long storage of radioactive waste in facilities that have proved impossible to locate or secure over the multigenerational timescales involved.
It is for these reasons — and, perhaps more so, because of the hazards of a catastrophic meltdown or the threat of terrorism — that nuclear power has proven both politically and economically infeasible. In the United States, no new plant construction has begun in nearly 40 years, and none will begin without heavy government subsidies. Though new technologies like pebble bed reactors promise higher efficiency and greater safety, many western countries have sworn off nuclear power altogether.
Is our risk-aversion soundly based?
In 1986, when the Chernobyl plant melted down, 28 people died within days from acute radiation poisoning. But, while those deaths were both horrific and tragic, the truly insidious fear was cancer. Between 1991 and 2003, 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer were diagnosed in the region.
But compare that number to the 44,000 thyroid cancer diagnoses made here in the United States every single year. Or to the 17,000 annual “premature deaths” which the EPA attributes to air pollution from coal plants. Yet the vanishingly small risk of cancer from a super-diffuse plume of radiation (wafting 5,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean from Japan’s crippled plant) is enough to send Californians scurrying to buy up all the iodine pills available.
Like a frog unaware of water coming to a boil around it, we have habituated ourselves to a slow decline in environmental quality. We no longer recognize the baseline death toll claimed by asthma, by coal mining accidents, by heavy metal poisoning. We refuse to acknowledge our role in global climate change even though the evidence is overwhelming and the consequences of inaction are dire. Are the unknowns that lie ahead really so frightening that we refuse to engage with them at all? Or are they so distant that we cannot stomach making hard choices today?
Would a more balanced assessment of risks result in economic viability for nuclear power? A 2009 MIT study found that an emissions tax of at least $25 per ton of CO2 would be necessary to level the playing field with fossil fuels. It is with such a tax in place and in the absence of other subsidies — for renewables and nuclear, as well as for fossil fuels — that we should let the market determine whether nuclear power is a viable option.
My purpose in this column is not to downplay the tragedies unfolding in Japan. Nor is it to provide a glowing endorsement of nuclear power. No: I ask only that each one of us stops to think carefully about the risks we are willing to accept and how these compare to the risks we are already taking — either deliberately or incidentally — in our current fossil fuel-based economy. Nuclear power is one item on a frighteningly short list of alternative energy sources. While neither clean nor renewable, it is scientifically (if not economically) viable right now. And perhaps it deserves a little less fear-mongering — at least while some very real dangers are escaping it altogether.
We’ve come a long way since the days when the “Firecracker Boys” of Operation Plowshare proposed the peaceful (and ludicrous!) use of nuclear weapons to blast Alaskan harbors, widen the Panama Canal or level inconvenient mountain ranges. But we should not let the pendulum of public opinion swing too far in the opposite direction without modulating its path with wisdom.
One nuke, two nuke; red nuke, blue nuke. We hope this Daiichi thing’s a fluke. Send thoughts, comments and anti-nuke propaganda to Holly at firstname.lastname@example.org.