The news out of Japan has been gripping precisely because the aftermath of the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck it, and the resulting crisis at nearby nuclear power plants, has been so unpredictable. While the natural-disaster storyline — bodies being discovered, survivors still being sought and in dire need of relief supplies — has been gut-wrenching, it has been progressing more or less how natural-disaster storylines usually progress. The ups and downs of the subsequent nuclear crisis have been a different matter.
As I write this post, things are looking slightly better again — for now. Radiation levels have fallen substantially after their enormous spike earlier in the day, although the plants are still far from stable and a change in the wind threatens to carry radiation down the coast toward Tokyo.
In many ways, this story is only just beginning. That’s why it’s still far too early to declare what this tragedy ought to mean for the future of nuclear power elsewhere.
Air travel didn’t end after 9/11, the building of levies didn’t end after Hurricane Katrina, and drilling for oil didn’t end after the BP/Deepwater Horizon accident. It is unreasonable to say, five days after the earthquake, that nuclear power should be written off as unsafe.
There surely are lessons to be learned. Some of them were already known: The next generation of nuclear power plants now being built, including the new reactors at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle, incorporate more methods of cooling fuel rods in an emergency. And there will be debate over whether, when building power plants designed to operate for a few decades, we ought to engineer them to withstand the kind of natural disasters believed to occur with such force only once every 300 years.
But knee-jerk reactions — such as the German government’s panicky decision to reverse course on nuclear power production — are foolish. As Alex Berezow reminds us at RealClearPolitics, there’s no such thing as risk-free energy.
Human history is a story of trying to tame those risks to the extent possible, a story that will continue in spite of the tragedy in Japan.
– By Kyle Wingfield
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