COMMENTARY | The earthquake- and tsunami-driven disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has already had a radical effect on reactor development plans around the world. But a study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicates that nuclear energy is the least deadly of all the energy sources, and reliance on energy fuel from foreign sources is a major security concern for many countries. Are we being too quick to accept a knee-jerk reaction to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster?
Kyodo News reported today that the latest number of confirmed deaths from the earthquake and tsunami is 10,066, with 17,452 people still missing. But so far, only one person has died from the nuclear plant disaster-a worker unfortunate enough to be in the cab of a crane at the plant when the earthquake hit.
We don’t know how many deaths may eventually occur from the radiation, but so far the Daiichi nuclear plant problems are considered much milder than what occurred at Chernobyl; the U.N.’s World Health Organization estimates that 56 people died directly from that Ukrainian meltdown, and about 4,000 will die from it eventually. By comparison, Boston’s Clean Air Task Force estimates that 13,200 people are killed each year in the U.S. alone from the pollutants produced by coal plants.
Overblown fears of nuclear power
So while tens of thousands of people were killed by the tsunami and earthquake, people around the world are in a panic about radiation that has not as of yet caused any deaths. Actually, the situation in Fukushima should give us more confidence in nuclear energy. The area received an earthquake of historic magnitude, followed by a tidal wave of horrendous force. Entire villages are gone. And yet the Daiichi reactors, admittedly of an older design and riddled with safety cover-ups by TEPCO, have not melted down and spewed large quantities of dangerous radioactivity.
A 2002 study by the International Energy Agency, an independent consortium of 28 countries, showed that nuclear plants are far less dangerous than our fossil fuel plants. When the entire cycle is considered, from mining and transporting resources, producing power, emissions, and through storage of waste, producing energy by coal is 4,000 times more deadly than nuclear power. And the cost of oil-based power must include all the lives lost in wars over oil-producing land. So why are we so afraid of nuclear power? New York Times bestselling author Seth Godin calls it “The triumph of coal marketing.”
What can we learn from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant?
Certainly there are lessons to be learned from this nuclear plant. The older design requiring constant water flow over the spent fuel rod pools should never be used again. We have several such reactors in the U.S. now, but there are much better designs for future reactors. Wastes should not be stored inside the plant, but in external concrete casements.
But if we’re going to throw up barriers based on lessons learned, it’s nonsensical to slow development of new nuclear energy. It would be more logical to say we should never allow people near a seismically active coast again. If you want to claim we should stop development of new nuclear plants in the U.S., you must first insist that the 15 miles along the coast of California should be permanently evacuated.
“2 weeks pass since disaster, death toll tops 10,000,” Kyodo News.
Joint News Release, “Chernobyl: the true scale of the accident,” World Health Organization.
“The Toll From Coal,” Clean Air Task Force.
“Environmental and Health Impacts of Electricity Generation,” The International Energy Agency.
Seth Godin, “The Triumph of Coal Marketing,” Seth Godin’s Blog.