A nuclear catastrophe is potentially unfolding in Japan after the country’s eastern seaboard was devastated by its biggest earthquake on record. A tsunami with waves up to thirty feet high swept away entire villages and damaged major industries, including oil refineries and at least two nuclear power plants.
Two explosions occurred at a nuclear facility in Fukushima over the weekend. At least one of its reactors may have partially melted down following a coolant pump failure. In the aftermath of the quake, engineers attempted to cool the reactor with sea water.
Nearly 200,000 people in the vicinity have been being evacuated out of precaution. Eighteen people were believed to have suffered radiation poisoning.
The emergency has triggered a discussion about the pros and cons of nuclear energy.
Japan has 53 nuclear power plants. After the United States and France, it has the most nuclear plants in the world. They provide a third of Japan’s energy needs.
Because Japan has so very few natural resources, it is highly dependent on the import of fossil fuels. Nuclear energy has been a strategic priority for Japan since the 1970s in an attempt to reduce the island nation’s dependence on foreign oil and gas.
Japan has had minor accidents with nuclear power in the past, and it has among the world’s most skilled engineers and scientists in the field.
It has also learned to live with earthquakes. Rigorous Japanese building codes have probably saved countless of lives in the most recent disaster.
Since the 1950s, there have been two major accidents with nuclear power: the partial meltdown of a reactor on Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1979, and the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Both events led to tighter safety measures. The situation in Fukushima will probably yield fresh insights and lessons for future nuclear power plant construction.
Accidents with nuclear power are potentially catastrophic, but other sources of energy are much deadlier.
Nearly 900 people have died in coal mining since 1980 in the United States alone. Even wind turbines have caused more deaths than nuclear power.
Nuclear energy is cleaner and safer than fossil fuels. It is more reliable than solar and wind. France is almost entirely energy-independent because of it.
The opposition to nuclear energy isn’t rooted in science. Opponents fear a technology they do not understand.