The Fukushima nuclear reactor: how dangerous is it?
A lot of people who know nothing about nuclear power are saying a lot of things these days during the Japanese nuclear crisis. I’ve toured two different nuclear reactors and my experiences there have taught me a few things that you may not know and that might shed some sober light on this subject.
Guess: How Many People Have Already Been Exposed To Radiation?
Almost 7 billion people are exposed to radiation each day. That's right, the entire population of the world is constantly absorbing radiation from the earth, from the sun, and from the universe. As a resident of Denver Colorado, I get about three times as much radiation as most people do along the coasts. The Mile High City is above much of the atmosphere, and the Rocky Mountains are full of radioactive substances. People living in other parts of Colorado are exposed to even more radiation. Radiation is everywhere; the question is really how much radiation people are receiving beyond their normal exposure. Think about that when you hear a panicked report of slightly elevated levels of radiation in Tokyo.
What Jobs Expose People To The Most And The Least Radiation?
A member of an airline flight crew gets the most radiation of any profession. This is because they spend so much time outside of the vast majority of the earth's atmosphere. Who gets the least: would you believe a crewmember on a nuclear submarine? That is because they spend so much time deep below the ocean's surface. Seawater makes an excellent shield against radiation from both the earth and the cosmos. As for the reactor itself, it is highly shielded as well. Upon exiting the last reactor I visited, we were all scanned by a radiation detector. The result was that the glow-in-the-dark radium from our wrist watches was emitting far more radiation than anything entering the environment from of a properly functioning reactor. As I write this, I am sitting just a few hundred feet from that reactor, a research reactor that does not produce electricity.
How Does Nuclear Safety Compare To Other Forms Of Energy?
31 people died at Chernobyl, which has been the only fatal accident at a commercial nuclear reactor so far. Perhaps as many as 30,000 premature fatalities may be attributed to cancer as a result of that accident. That is pretty bad right? Yes it is, as each death is a tragedy.
By contrast, between 1969 and 2000 there have been 20,000 deaths directly related to oil production. Another 16,000 have died in coal mining accidents. Another 1,000,000 premature deaths annually are attributed to pollution, largely from fossil fuels. The number of deaths attributed to global climate change from the burning of fossil fuels cannot yet be estimated. When put in perspective, it is clear that nuclear energy is far safer than the continued burning of fossil fuels. As for the other non-health related forms of environmental damage, it seems clear that the last half century of massive oil spills, mountaintop removal of coal, and other disasters have spoiled the earth to a greater extent than nuclear accidents have.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Nuclear energy remains the only carbon neutral way to generate large scale quantities of electricity. There have been countless disasters in the oil, gas, and coal industries, yet we haven't yet given up these energy sources. At the same time, people are now questioning the continued operation and construction of nuclear plants. The obvious reason is that most of the deaths that have been directly attributed to fossil fuel production have afflicted people who chose to work in that industry. With nuclear power, the risk spreads to the general population.
The only certain result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster will be that the cost of nuclear energy will increase as the world implements even more stringent controls and safeguards. From the standpoint of an environmentalist, this may be a problem that solves itself. As the price of new reactors climb, and the cost of other forms of renewable energy falls, simple economics may do what a generation of protesters failed to do, ending the nuclear industry. Certainly, if the true costs of fossil fuels were factored into its price, we may have largely abandoned them some time ago.