The nuclear topic as an example of tainted thinking

Ever since World War II, it seems, the word nuclear has promoted panic and fear. Reason goes out the window. The Japan earthquake and its effect on nuclear power plants has rekindled the flames of those in panic. But some are noticing just how irrational the anti-nuclear power plant position really is.

One essay that really surprised many was George Monbiot in the guardian.co.uk. Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power.

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.

Some greens have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution. For a clearer view, look at the graphic published by xkcd.com.

That xkcd chart has received a lot of notice. Another good one is Keeping perspective at And Still I Persist from a DoE website.

Matthew Shaffer takes on the nature of the debate in Another Three Mile Island.

McGaha and other experts tell NRO that Americans are unduly afraid of nuclear energy — in part because of the media’s disproportionate, distorted reporting on rare nuclear accidents like Three Mile Island and the recent problems in Japan. McGaha says the most deadly consequence of Three Mile Island might have been how it delayed the advancement of nuclear technology in the U.S.

The total death toll from Three Mile Island may have been zero, and Chernobyl claimed, by the estimates of the International Atomic Energy Agency, just 50 lives, despite what nuclear experts describe as the Soviet Union’s extreme incompetence. Each lost life is a tragedy. But in the 20th century, hydroelectric dams’ bursting, coal-mining disasters, and oil explosions have killed tens of thousands. And that includes just direct deaths from accidents, not indirect deaths from displacement, health problems caused by particulate matter, etc. Statistically speaking, nuclear experts claim, uranium fission is the safest major energy source in the world.

The facts are fairly clear. There is a fifty year history for nuclear power production. The failure incidents are very few. The deaths and injury counts very small. Yet those against such power sources will claim there is a conspiracy that is hiding many other failures and that the deaths are really in the thousands. Besides this conspiracy ethos, these folks will populate their arguments with “what if” scenarios. They also often assert that alternative energy sources such as wind or solar can take up the needs and, if not, then power consumption is too high anyway and people need to use less.

Current news is about background radiation levels in food or the environment near northern Japan. One has to wonder about farmers in the vicinity of nuclear plants that still have fields to produce with nuclear contaminants. The tsunami that damaged the power plants probably also inundated the fields with salt water so it will take a while before they can grow anything. Then there’s the solar power idea: a big enough solar power plant to replace the damaged nuclear power plants would be so big as to make any damaged territory from nuclear contamination look small – if there was indeed such contamination and it lasted long enough to build the solar collection facilities.

The fact is that much of human health and welfare is directly related to cheap and abundant energy. That, and the fact that the debate has been going hot and heavy since the sixties and is so irrational indicate just how deep the issue touches people. Japan, France, and other countries have not had the luxury and wealth of the US that allowed them to avoid nuclear power. The regulatory and fear costs placed on the power source in the US are a price that has been paid and is being paid. The question is just how high the price will need to be before the US joins other countries in realizing that there may be a better way to do things. There are still those who think we can do without abundant energy and they still have a powerful voice. That is the debate.

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