Field of Science


No one advocated halting the manufacture of methyl isocyanate or shutting down the chemical industry after the Bhopal tragedy of 1984 which killed thousands more than any nuclear accident. The Gulf oil spill also did not provoke howls to terminate oil production. And of course, you don't hear calls for permanent evacuation of coastal communities because of the occasional tsunami that can wipe out these cities in a catastrophe much worse than a nuclear engineer's worst nightmare.

I cannot add much to what's being already said and I join millions in wishing the unfortunate citizens of Japan the very best. But even a serious accident like the one currently unfolding at the Japanese nuclear plant should not blind us to the bigger picture. Predictably, there have already been calls from alarmists to stop all nuclear building in the US. In keeping with the media's appetite for sensationalism, the Washington Post put an adequately fear-invoking and alarmist photo on their cover page. As others have noted, we don't regularly hear calls to halt oil and natural gas production after accidents that are much more damaging in terms of environmental destruction and human life compared to the one or two serious nuclear accidents we have witnessed. The only response after a crisis such as the present one should be to put together a review of reactor safety in other parts of the world and how it could possibly be improved to withstand such freak scenarios as the ones we are witnessing. But when presented with an unfortunate, unlikely case, human nature is to throw out the baby with the bath water.

Already people are comparing the current crisis to Chernobyl. This is a ridiculous comparison, partly because the current reactor and the contingency response have been much better than the ones during Chernobyl and partly because if you really want to cite the worst case scenario, you might as well hold up the Hindenberg as an argument against air travel. In case of Chernobyl the accident was of course the result of a combination of several factors, including a fundamentally flawed design and human inertia engendered by communist ideology that prevented rapid response. The number of deaths from Chernobyl cannot be known with certainty, but it's certainly less than deaths from any number of other industry-related accidents. One can be almost sure that the effects of the present accident are going to be far less severe because of more open communication and prompt response. In fact it's heartening that these reactors with 50-year old designs did relatively well in spite of being struck by one of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history. With modern designs where passive systems can cool the core in spite of loss of electrical power, one can be much more confident about containment of radiation (as an aside, I wonder why the seawater that was pumped into the Japanese reactor did not contain cadmium chloride for neutron absorption).

Here's one of the things the US should do. Just like they did after Chernobyl, top scientists in this country should put together a committee after the facts of the Japanese disaster become known. They should undertake a review of all the nuclear reactors in the US and write a report detailing their safety features as well as possible measures that can be included in the unlikely case of natural disasters like the one in Japan. There should be two versions of this objective, apolitical report. One version should be more technical and comprehensive and can serve as a blueprint for future action. The other version should explain the committee's conclusions in simple terms that can be understood by the public and by members of Congress. Finally, and this is key, this version should be publicized as widely as possible in an effort to educate the public about the true risks and benefits.

Ultimately the life and death of a technology is not decided by how harmful or beneficial its effects are but by simple economic tradeoffs. Automobiles and fossil fuels have killed hundreds of thousands, but nobody advocates their extinction simply because their benefits are perceived to greatly exceed their costs. A similar argument can be made for knives and guns. On the other hand, nuclear power which boasts an impeccable safety record compared to the chemical and fossil fuel industry still sets off alarm bells and brings forth calls for its demise. This is partly because of the irrational psychological gut reaction that people still associate with the words "radiation", "nuclear" and "meltdown" (an unfortunate consequence of the fact that the world's first exposure to nuclear energy was by way of nuclear weapons) but more importantly because of the simple fact that nuclear is not seen as an indispensable energy option even now.

What will it take for the situation to change? Perhaps when war in the Middle East decimates dependence on fossil fuels or when extreme climate change exacerbates our lifestyles to an unacceptable extent, we will finally accept nuclear energy as an energy-intensive, climate change-friendly power source whose risks must be evaluated and managed just like those of others. The only question is whether it would be too late then.


  1. If you haven't seen it already, you might like this too...

    In my opinion, considering how people in this country view science, as a belief system, and scientists, your excellent suggestion is not going to happen. Perhaps the committee will convene, but the facts won't get out...or at least not the way they should.

  2. Thanks for the link, it's extremely informative. You are right that no matter how reasoned the arguments are, they often cannot prevail in today's anti-science environment.

  3. Olivier Galibert3:09 PM, March 17, 2011

    Didn't they use boronic acid in the seawater?



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