The Japanese nuclear disaster would never have happened, were it not for gross engineering negligence.  (Source: 4shared)

In some ways Fukushima is like Chernobyl. But unlike Chernobyl, no one has directly died of radiation poisoning, yet.  (Source: Wordpress)

Many modern reactor types, like thorium-based designs, are incapable of melting down. Thus the chances of "meltdown" would be a moot point if these clean, safe, high-energy reactors were built.  (Source: Thorium TV)
MODERN nuclear power is cheap, reliable, and safe

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Japanese people in the wake of Fukushima Plant and its difficult cleanup and containment process.  The disaster was yesterday upgraded from a Level 5 to a Level 7 disaster.  That formally puts it in a tie for the worst ranked disaster with Russia's 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.

It is important to exercise caution when assessing this upgrade.  Many are already declaring that the disaster may be worse than Chernobyl, given food and seawater contamination.  However, the extent of the environmental impact and contamination of the food supply remains to be fully seen.

As bad as the Japanese nuclear disaster is, it may create far worse fallout of an economic and political variety, internationally.  It may effectively kill, or at least seriously cripple in the short term, new nuclear development in the U.S. and abroad via both negative public sentiment and political posturing.

And that's a shame.  

I.  The Death of New Nuclear?

The Japanese disaster, much like Chernobyl, was due to gross negligence.  The plant's designers built a reactor in a region prone to flooding by monsoons and tsunamis, yet failed to waterproof the plant's backup generators.  As they say, hindsight is 20-20, but the plant's backup systems were an exercise in shortsightedness.

The quake did show that even ancient reactors are virtually impervious to significant damage from the most powerful of earthquakes.  The plant received extremely little damage due to the quake and was able to complete normal shutdown operations.  

The only serious problem -- the one that caused this mess -- was the flooding.

Much of the focus of the sensationalist media has been on the "risk" of earthquake damage to the U.S.  But the real lesson of Fukushima is that quakes aren't likely catastrophic in and of themselves -- but loss of backup power can be.

Rather than reassessing all nuclear power plants in the U.S. for direct quake damage, the government should be focusing its review on backup systems in quake, mudslide, or flood-prone regions like Louisiana, California, etc.

II. Aging Reactors vs. New Reactors

Even given the Japanese public's new fear of nuclear power, it's unlikely that they'll shut down the nation's other plants like the Monju or Tokai Nuclear Power Plants.  Likewise, the U.S. is unlikely to take its nuclear power plants offline.

What will happen is plans for new plants will likely be shelved in both regions.  In this regard, public fear is creating an unsafe situation. 

Many modern reactor designs are physically incapable of a traditional meltdown/partial-meltdown like occurred at Fukushima and Chernobyl.  Examples of such meltdown-proof designs include pebble-bed reactors and Thorium fuel reactor designs.

The damaged Fukushima plant was scheduled to begin decommissioning just a month after when the quake hit.  One of the reactors had been in operation for over 40 years. 

You could tear down every legacy nuclear power plant in the U.S. and Japan and then rebuild brand new plants.  Not only would you get much more energy; you'd also dramatically improve your safety.

By delaying the deployment of modern reactors, the life of legacy plants is prolonged far past when it should be.  In short, public fear may ultimately be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by impeding the advent of disaster-proof designs.

III.  Nuclear v. Fossil Fuels

People tend to quickly brush aside the cost of life and environmental contamination of fossil fuels.  Fukushima may seem bad, but the Deepwater Horizon spill of last year did at least a comparable level of environmental damage.  And like the Fukushima spill it contaminated food products (seafood) harvested in the vicinity.

But unlike the Fukushima plant, which has thus far only injured people, it actually killed workers.

Now nuclear power is by no means safe.  But neither is the life cycle of fossil fuels.  Oil prospecting is still a risky business.  BP's executives compared deep sea oil drilling to executing a space mission -- one wrong move and you're in a terrible situation.

Every year miners lose their lives to cancer and accidents in coal mines in order to provide America's primary source of electrical power.  And every decade there has been a major coal mining accident that led to numerous deaths.  Yes, uranium mining is also dangerous, but people tend to forget how dangerous fossil fuels are, far more often than they forget the dangers associated with nuclear energy

Nuclear power offers an alternative to coal power.  And if electric vehicles see sufficient deployment, it may one day be able to greatly reduce oil dependence as well.

While both fossil fuels and nuclear have their risks, nuclear power -- except in cases of gross negligence -- has virtually no emissions.  By contrast the burning of fossil fuels produces carcinogenic hydrocarbons, sulfides, and nitrides, which damage both human health and the environment.

Nuclear waste is certainly a problem, but again this was a far greater problem with legacy designs like those in Japan.  With modern reactors spent nuclear fuel can be applied to rebreeding reactions, reducing waste to a negligible amount.  Better yet, some of these modern reactors can reduce spent fuel from legacy designs, easing the transition process, as well.

Negative views on nuclear power largely come from a handful of incidents in which engineers ignored glaring design flaws and suffered the consequences of their negligence.  Overall nuclear is attractive versus fossil fuels.

It also stacks up favorably versus other forms of alternative energy.  Geothermal, tidal, and wave power all seem promising, but they are highly location specific and, in the case of the latter two sources, the devices to harvest them are still in their infancy.

Hydroelectric sounds great, but it creates immense environmental damage and a huge safety risk.  The failure of the Banqiao Dam in southern China killed 26,000 people.  Another 145,000 died of epidemics as a result of the dam burst.  And millions were left homeless.  That's far worse than any nuclear accident -- Chernobyl or Fukushima.  Numerous smaller hydroelectric accidents have occurred in the U.S. and other nations.

Solar and wind are both relatively "safe" power sources, but they're far more expensive than nuclear and they're intermittent.  The sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow, but people are using power 24-7.  Thus clearly society cannot solely rely on these power sources.

At the end of the day, nuclear seems like a viable option -- perhaps the best power option --- when surveyed with an objective, rational, scientific mindset.  Of course if you buy into media sensationalism, you might perceive the picture far differently.

IV. Nuclear Disaster Classification -- a Flawed Scale

The Fukushima Disaster was upgraded [press release] to a "Level 7" disaster on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  As only one other event of this scale has occurred -- Chernobyl -- people automatically assume these two events are comparable.

In a way they are.

As outlined, both events resulted from gross negligence.  Both required evacuations.  And both will require substantial cleanup and removal of contaminated food.

But on the other hand the classification totally fails to assess the true damage to human health. 

Fukushima has led to three direct worker injuries due to radiation exposure.  These workers were inside the plant.  Thus far there have been no reported deaths from the accident.

By contrast Chernobyl reportedly resulted in 64 direct deaths, including 31 direct deaths of workers (to put this in comparison, the Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 people).  Hundreds of workers were hospitalized.

By all indications the direct damage in the Chernobyl situation was far worse due to sloppy handling.  There was a significant loss of life, compared to no loss of life in the current situation.  But the ranking system utterly fails to capture this information.  The INES is a system designed by some very smart people.  But in its inability to relay this critical information, it is quite a "dumb" system.

Now it's worth pointing out that levels of atmospheric radioactive iodine-131 and caesium-137 internationally have risen to levels [source] not seen since Chernobyl.  While this does not indicate ANY substantial risk to most of the world, it does likely indicate a major localized radiation release in Japan.  This release, like the release at Chernobyl, will likely elevate cancer rates -- and in some cases cause potentially fatal cancers.

But again this event is still significantly different from Chernobyl in overall impact and it would be highly desirably for the scale to reflect this, which it currently does not.

V. Conclusions

At the end of the day the Fukushima situation is an unsavory one.  But Americans should not let the mistakes of corner cutting Japanese engineers cripple American innovation.

It's important to remember the facts here. 

There has been a significant release of radiation.  The blame for that rest jointly on tsunami flooding (note there was NO significant damage from the earthquake) and on gross negligence on the part of the Japanese nuclear engineers who designed the plant's safety systems.  But thus far no one has died.

No form of power is safe.  But to criticize nuclear power due a bungle at an ancient "dirty" legacy reactor is insanity.  Many modern nuclear reactor designs are utterly incapable of nuclear meltdown, produce virtually no waste, and output much more power.  

Modern nuclear reactors offer one of the most affordable, safe, and reliable alternative energy sources that America has access to today.  To turn our backs on that energy source due to incompetence of a handful of Japanese designers would be selling our children -- and our nation -- short.

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