April 01, 2011

Article at Cosmos Magazine

OPINION | Nuclear Nightmares

The nuclear accident in Japan does not raise doubts about the safety of nuclear power, and calls to abandon it altogether are just another example of the strange irrationality that surrounds the issue.

By Wilson da Silva

WHY IS IT THAT, faced with an unfolding nuclear accident in Japan, even normally cautious news outlets descend into a seething, breathless recounting of what seems like the Armageddon itself?

The multiple calamities of a record earthquake and a massive tsunami in Japan have left more than 22,000 people dead or missing. Yet in the days following the catastrophe, the news coverage would have you believe that a meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant was actually the most severe threat to the devastated nation. And that it called into question the safety of nuclear energy.

This is balderdash. Yes, appalling disasters occur, technologies fail and people die. Buildings, bridges and even whole cities can crumble in the face of nature’s fearsome fury. Why would we expect nuclear facilities to be any different?

When scores of people die in an aircraft accident, we don’t hear calls for an end to air travel. When collapsing buildings crush victims in an earthquake, we don’t question the wisdom of building skyscrapers near fault lines.

Why do incidents involving anything ‘nuclear’ – from the accidental release of gas no more radioactive than the air in South Australia’s northern Flinders Ranges to the leak of low-level hospital waste – trigger such panicked coverage?

In the public mind, nuclear energy is often associated with nuclear weapons – a link its opponents encourage. And, yes, you can strongly argue that nuclear weapons are inherently evil. But there’s nothing inherently ‘evil’ about nuclear energy, any more than sunlight is evil. Sunlight comes from the Sun, a titanic nuclear reactor. It just happens to be 150 million km away.

The loss of tens of thousands of lives and the widespread destruction caused by the quake and tsunami will dwarf any damage caused by the Fukushima accident, even if a meltdown had occurred. But that’s not the impression you get from the lopsided, occasionally shrill coverage.

When a 20 km exclusion zone was declared around the reactor – a standard precautionary procedure – the global news coverage frothed with “NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE”, “ATOMIC CRISIS” and “MELTDOWN ALERT”. The reporting itself did no better: nonsensical, contradictory, overdramatic and occasionally hysterical.

No wonder the public react with fear when they see the word ‘nuclear’, and no wonder even well-informed people behave irrationally. A friend told me she was reconsidering visiting Seoul “because of the fallout” – something that only occurs when a nuclear weapon is detonated in the atmosphere, an event the world has not seen since 1963.

With such alarming news coverage, it can be hard to think clearly and rationally. And yet, that’s exactly what we need to do – not just in crises, but when considering the real benefits and the real risks of potential energy options.

There are 442 operating nuclear power plants in 30 countries generating 375 gigawatts a year. Total electricity production from nuclear power since 1951 was 64,600 billion kWh and represents a cumulative operating experience equal to 14,174 years. In that time, there have been three major accidents – including Fukushima – with a total death toll of 56 (all from Chernobyl in 1986).

Too high? Then why do we tolerate emissions from coal- fired power plants killing nearly 24,000 people a year in the United States alone from asthma, heart attacks and other ailments? This is, incidentally, without taking into account the impact of coal’s greenhouse gas emissions, likely to lead to thousands more unecessary deaths annually as a result of climate change in the decades to come.

Critical thinking, devoid of emotive triggers, is what we need in debates about energy and safety, because it allows us to make better decisions. Breathless coverage may give us nightmares, but we wake from nightmares and live in the real world. 

And what we don’t need in the real world is an ‘amygdala hijack’ – a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence to describe an intense fear response out of all proportion to its actual threat.

What happened in Japan was a tragedy of immense proportions. As an advanced technical society, we need to learn from such calamities, so our engineers and scientists can build better and more resilient systems – bridges, buildings, roads and, yes, nuclear reactors. That’s progress. That’s science.