Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Energy

My Grandfather, the late R.C. Rogers was a very wise and intuitive man. An electrician by trade, he was stationed with the Navy in the South Pacific in August of 1945 when atomic weaponry brought about the end to World War II. For the remainder of his life, Granddad credited the Bomb with saving his life. Yet he also regretted it.

My father recalls that a few years after Granddad retuned from the war, he would say that he regretted the Atomic Bomb because he believed the incredible power and potential of nuclear energy would forever be tainted because it was introduced to the world through the destructive power of atomic weaponry.

Now, some 66 years after Japan bore the destructive power of the atom in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the island nation has new challenges brought on by the catastrophe at Fukushima. Combine the ghastly images of atomic destruction from World War II with the vivid memories of 1979’s Three Mile Island accident and the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster; there is good reason why the world is taking a critical look at the nuclear industry.

It is still too soon to evaluate the long-term effect of the Fukushima crisis but the historical evidence of the past can really help us in the debate.

In 2000 the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) released the comprehensive results of a long-term study following Chernobyl. The only fatalities directly attributed to radiation exposure were limited to employees and first responders who came in nearly direct contact with the burning nuclear reactor during the emergency or participated in immediate cleanup efforts.

As of 2005, only 50 total deaths were directly attributed to these exposures. This exceptionally low death rate stood in stark contrast to estimates of hundreds of thousands of presumed deaths or acute illnesses believed to be brought on by the disaster. The lead researcher, Dr. Fred A. Mettler Jr. determined that the greatest danger resulting from the accident was fear and politically motivated propaganda; not radiation.

Nuclear power plants do possess a significant danger. Yet science and medical research indicate that danger may not be as great as politics and fear may dictate they should be.

A second point to consider in the debate surrounding the safety of nuclear energy is the role modern technology and research play in the industry. The earliest safety feature in nuclear history was nothing more than a rope and an axe. In 1942 Nuclear pioneer Enrico Fermi initiated the world’s first controlled nuclear reaction—the birth of the nuclear power industry. In the event they lost control of the reactor, he had a man stationed with an axe ready to cut the rope that would lower cadmium rods into the reactor to stop the reaction.

Today, with 65 years of incredible research and development behind us, nuclear safety is greater than it has ever been. The Fukushima plant was actually designed with incredible safety features. The fact that it was subjected to one of the worst earthquakes and tsunamis on record is significant. For all the problems it has today, we must remember what it had to endure! We also need to consider that it was originally designed with technology that is now 40 years old. Any plant designed and built today would have significantly advanced safety designs and would have likely survived even the March 11 disaster.

The truth is that Nuclear Energy will always contain danger and the potential of a nuclear accident is a reality that regulators and engineers will always need to consider. Fear, irrational politics, and distorted propaganda are perhaps the greatest dangers when it comes to nuclear. The industry remains virtually untouchable as the best source for clean, efficient, environmentally friendly, and inexpensive power to serve a world thirsting for more and more energy.

Grandfather was wise beyond his years. That electrician rightly predicted that fear would inhibit the reasonable development of a much-needed industry. Three Mile Island proved his fears true as our nation foolishly put a halt to nuclear development—a mistake we are just now on the verge of correcting! As the world debates Fukushima and the future of the nuclear industry in light of this latest disaster, let us all hope that reason, science, and objectivity will prevail where once fear, propaganda, and irrational politics once dominated. 

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