We've always known, intuitively, that living anywhere in the vicinity of a factory that generates electricity essentially by means of a controlled chemical reaction of the kind that killed upwards of 300,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was, at best, an iffy proposition, a fact that's been brought home to the roughly 200,000 people who have had to be evacuated from the vicinity of the Japanese plants.
But, of course, living in the vicinity of any plant that handles or manufactures toxic substances isn't likely to increase your longevity. Just ask the folks who lived in Bhopal, India or near the Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York about that. Oh sure, nuclear power plants are full of structural and technological fail-safes that are supposed to prevent meltdowns and the release of radioactivity that follows them, but what comfort is that now to the residents of the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan, or was it to residents of the towns adjacent to Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 or Chernobyl in the USSR in 1986.
“Supposed to” is never much comfort in the aftermath of “didn't,” is it? Just ask shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico how much comfort it is to them now that BP's deep water oil well in the Gulf was “supposed to” prevent the kind of spill that will likely affect their livelihoods for the next 20 years. Or ask the thousands of folks who lost their life savings at the hands of Bernie Madoff how much comfort it was to them that his Ponzi scheme was “supposed to” be discovered by the regulators.
Energy, and its generation, is a troublesome business. No matter what the source of the juice civilization relies on to power its cars, factories and homes, trouble always seems to follow. The main sources of energy in this country are oil and coal, both of which are fraught with perilous side-effects, whether geopolitical, environmental or both. Accidents happen in and around oil wells and their transmission and storage facilities, as they do in and around coal mines. And, let's not forget that wars are instigated over petroleum or that climate change is accelerated by burning coal.
But, there's something qualitatively different about nuclear energy. Maybe it's because nothing else—-no accident, screw-up, terrorist plot or military misadventure—-has the potential to sicken or kill as many people as nuclear radiation does. It's no accident, then, that the term “nuclear option” has come to mean what it has when used as a bargaining chip, whether in the context of the school systems in Shelby County, Tennessee or the passage of controversial legislation in Washington, D.C. or Madison, Wisconsin.
No one uses the term “petroleum option” or “bituminous option” to convey the same sense of brinkmanship the threat of unleashing atomic radiation, literally or figuratively, does. And nothing has the potential to wreak its havoc like substances that can linger for decades, as many radioactive substances can. The effects of Chernobyl, for example, are still being felt, 25 years later. And, the Fukishima incident doesn't even deal with the other dangers raised by atomic energy, like the disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Very few things (well, maybe other than the bitterness of a scorned spouse) take 200,000 years or more to dissipate, like many atomic substances do.
So, the question becomes, are the benefits of nuclear power generation worth the risks attendant to it? The Japanese incident is causing a re-examination of that question by politicians who may have been, until now, a bit blithe in their support for nuclear power as the solution to this country's reliance on fossil fuel, and particularly the Middle Eastern kind. The ground under the push for nuclear energy has suddenly shifted, dramatically.
If the example of the Fukushima plants serves any useful purpose, it will be, first, to cause a rigorous re-inspection of the nuclear power plants that already exist in the U.S. (and maybe even to re-think bringing new ones, like the Clinch River plant in East Tennessee, on line), and strengthen the existing safeguards against any of them leading to another Fukushima incident, and second, to make solar, wind, geothermal, and other, non-nuclear, sources of energy a whole lot more attractive, maybe enough so that “safe energy” won't become a contradiction in terms.